'Mistaken Identities' Survivor Graduates, Looks to Do Something Great

Taylor University alumna Whitney Cerak will be leaving America in a few weeks to work with an orphanage in Kenya after having graduated from her Indiana-based Christian school this past weekend.

About three years ago, such an event would have sounded impossible – especially after Cerak's family held funeral services for her following a deadly car crash that killed five and injured four.

"Even today, when I hear her voice on the phone, I still get excited and chills about that," Cerak's father, Newell, told Matt Lauer on NBC's Today show last month. "Each day we get that chance to talk with her, it just reminds us again of the amazing blessing that we have."

On April 26, 2006, Cerak was riding with fellow students and staff from Taylor University in a van bound for the main campus in Upland, Ind. During the trip, a truck crossed the median and crashed into the van, killing four students and one staff member and injuring four more.

Though Cerak was among those injured, she was reported to be among the dead. Unknown to officials and even friends and families, Cerak had been misidentified as Laura Van Ryn and was being taken to Parkvew Hospital in Fort Wayne in critical condition.

It wasn't until Cerak awoke from her coma one month later, that her true identity was revealed. By then, her family had already held funeral services and was coming to grips with their loss.

"I did not believe my sister was in the hospital; I thought for sure this was a mistake," Cerak's sister Carly recalled just days after the mix-up was discovered.

"When I walked into the hospital room I was shocked and overcome with joy," she added. "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. It is hard because our joy is their pain."

Though grateful to be alive, Cerak finds it hard at times, especially when she's reminded of how the Van Ryn family stayed by her bedside, believing that Laura Van Ryn had survived the accident.

"There is that survival guilt. I struggle with that every few months," she said in last month's "Today" interview.

But now, with her whole life ahead of her, Cerak aims to make it the best, starting with her eight-month stay in Kenya to help homeless and drug-addicted "street boys."

"I am now looking to do something great," she said.

Last year, the Cerak family and Van Ryn family published a book that captured in detail what both deeply religious families went through in the days and weeks after the crash.

 The book, Mistaken Identities, reached No. 1 on the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly lists for non-fiction books and led to appearances on "Oprah" and "The Today Show.

Lauer, who interviewed the Van Ryn and Cerak families on "Today" last year and has kept tabs on the families, said last month that they "will be the most extraordinary families I've ever met."

"I truly mean that," he added.

On the Web:

Excerpt from Mistaken Identity at simonandschuster.com