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‘The day that my life changed’: Woman marks 10-year anniversary of her own funeral

On the 10 year anniversary of a horrific car accident that left Whitney Wheeler in a coma and four other students dead, Wheeler visited her alma mater to retell the story and to pay tribute to the friends she lost. (Video: Taylor University)

Whitney Cerak’s last memory was crawling into the school van.

Students and staff members from Taylor University, a small Christian college in Indiana, were returning from a trip to Fort Wayne on April 26, 2006, when a semi hopped a median on Interstate 69 and slammed into them, according to news reports from the time.

Bodies went everywhere.

Traffic was shut down on the interstate to allow first-responders to save those still alive.

Paramedics loaded Cerak into a helicopter and rushed her to a hospital in Fort Wayne, where the teenager was listed in critical condition, with numerous broken bones and a brain injury that left her in a coma.

“They didn’t think that I would make it very long,” she later said.

But back home in Michigan, her family learned that their daughter was dead.

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Authorities had mixed-up Cerak with 22-year-old Laura Van Ryn, an upperclassman who was killed in the crash. Both had blonde hair and similar builds, and Van Ryn’s purse was found near Cerak at the scene.

Over the next several weeks, Van Ryn’s family was planted at Cerak’s bedside.

Meanwhile, Cerak’s family had buried another woman’s body, believing she was their own.

Cerak, who is now married and known as Whitney Wheeler, spoke Wednesday to students at Taylor University in Upland, Ind.

It was 10 years after a horrific car crash claimed the lives of her friends, 10 years after her own funeral — and 10 years after she said she got a second chance.

“That day marked me,” she told the students. “That’s the day that my life changed.”

Investigators said that on that Wednesday night in 2006, the semi’s driver, Robert Spencer, fell asleep at the wheel, swerved across the roadway and hit the school van head-on, according to Fox affiliate WXIN.

The crash killed four university students — Van Ryn, Brad Larson, Laurel Erb and Betsy Smith — as well as a staff member, Monica Felver.

Spencer was charged with five counts of reckless homicide, according to the station, and went on to serve two years of a four-year sentence.

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It was amid the chaos that emergency workers erroneously clipped Van Ryn’s student ID to Wheeler’s body, according to WXIN.

“They called my family up in Michigan and told my family that I had not made it through the accident,” Wheeler said Wednesday.

The Van Ryns got a phone call, as well.

“I was at home at my parents’ house and my mom came up and said, ‘We just got a phone call; Laura’s been in an accident,” her sister, Lisa Van Ryn, told Oprah Winfrey several years ago. “But we didn’t know the full extent of what had happened yet.”

At a prayer service Monday at Taylor University, Lisa Van Ryn talked about the moment they arrived at the hospital.

“We got to the hospital and were taking care of who we thought was Laura, but it turned out to be Whitney instead,” she said, according to WXIN. “And we wouldn’t learn that until five weeks later.”

They saw a young woman, unconscious and wrapped in bandages. They talked to doctors about her injuries. They worked on a recovery plan. But it wasn’t long before they started to have questions.

“While certain things seem to be coming back to her, she still has times when she’ll say things that don’t make any sense,” Lisa Van Ryn wrote in a blog post the next month, according to a 2006 story in The Washington Post.

Wheeler had been slowly creeping back to reality. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t aware. She would soon speak, but not above a whisper.

Little by little, Van Ryn’s family started to notice things here and there about the girl in the hospital that were different from their daughter. Then, one day during speech therapy, they found out the truth.

“They asked me to write my name,” Wheeler recalled, “and I wrote ‘Whitney.'”

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The revelation shocked both families.

The Ceraks had already buried their teenage daughter.

“My family had a funeral for me,” Wheeler said Wednesday. “A lot of people wonder what will people say about you at your funeral.”

“On this very stage, my sister, Carly, told my entire campus that I didn’t shower enough,” Wheeler added, smiling. “And one of my pastors back in Michigan, he told everyone who came to the funeral that I wasn’t very good at sports.

“So I learned all these things out. But how often you expect the person to come back and confront you about that?”

After the two families learned the truth, Lisa Van Ryn wrote on her blog that there had been a “misidentification.”

“It is uncanny the resemblance that these two young women share,” she wrote, according to WXIN.

Wheeler’s sister, Carly, soon took over the blog to finish documenting her sister’s recovery.

“Soon after we saw Whitney, our family met with the Van Ryns and our joy for ourselves was pushed aside by the pain we felt for them,” Carly Cerak wrote, according to WXIN. “It is hard because our joy is their pain.”

Indeed, Wheeler said, it was a bumpy road back from the grave.

She felt devastated over losing her friends, guilty for being the one who survived and angry that she was thrust into a national spotlight that she never wanted.

“Everything I had known about myself, my identity, was swallowed up by this accident,” she said. “This is how I was known, just as that girl that survived.”

After her recovery, Wheeler said, she returned and graduated from Taylor University on time.

“Coming back to school was really hard,” she said. “Nothing was making sense to me. My identity before the accident was no longer. I thought I was really social and funny, I had a lot of friends. But after April 26, those things changed.”

She struggled to find a new identity, she said.

But eventually, she did.

After graduation, she spent time in Kenya with her sister, a missionary.

She married her longtime boyfriend and had three children.

Now, she shares her story.

But she still remembers the horrors she somehow survived.

“The best way I can describe it is being the first one to fall asleep at a sleepover,” she said. “And so much has gone on at night that when you wake up in the morning you’re like, ‘Were we even at the same party?’

“Because you were totally left out of everything.”


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