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Laura Van Ryn was seriously injured in a car accident. But when she woke up, she kept repeating 'Whitney'.

For five weeks, Laura Van Ryn’s family kept a bedside vigil around her hospital bed.

They were told their daughter had survived a horror crash on April 26, 2006 when a university van carrying her and eight other students and staff members collided head on with a tractor-trailer. Five people in the van died.

Laura, a 22-year-old from Michigan, suffered serious head trauma. She was wrapped up in bandages and was initially unable to communicate, but her family documented her recovery online for more than a month.

Then as she emerged from a coma, Laura began to say confusing things.

“Whitney,” she repeated, whenever asked a question or referred to as Laura. “It’s Whitney.”

laura van ryn
Laura Van Ryn. Image: AAP.

Stephanie Peper, one of Laura's therapists, told The Oprah Winfrey Show that when she called her patient "Laura," she would respond with a whisper, saying "Whitney."

"The name 'Whitney' to me was a piece of the puzzle," Stephanie said. "But I didn't know it was the piece of the puzzle."

Laura had been identified at the crash scene by an emergency services officer. The crash victim had the blonde hair, height and weight that matched Laura Van Ryn's description.

But no one thought to check her dental records until she woke up and referred to herself as Whitney.

Whitney Cerek, 18, was identified as one of the students who had died in the car crash. Soon after, almost 1400 people attended her funeral.

whitney-cerek
Whitney Cerek. Image: AAP.
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Then dental records confirmed something the Van Ryn family had begun to suspect - the blonde woman in the hospital bed was not Laura.

It was Whitney.

The two women - who both had blonde hair and were the same height, weight and body type - had been mixed up at the chaotic scene of the crash. Whitney, whose family thought they had buried her, was alive and Laura, whose family was documenting her recovery in hospital, was dead.

It was a stunning case of misidentification that started at the crash scene, then onto the hospital. The Cerek family had opted not to identify the body they were told was Whitney before burial, fearing it would be too traumatic and no autopsy was done.

"Whitney had more moments of clarity as she was recovering from her traumatic brain injury," Spectrum Hospital spokesman Bruce Rossman said after the misidentification was discovered. "She had said a couple things that led [the Van Ryns] to believe that maybe this wasn't their daughter."

Whitney's family drove to the hospital and identified their daughter, leaving the Van Ryn's to plan a memorial service for Laura - whose body had already been buried during the funeral for Whitney weeks before.

"People have to keep in mind here that these two young women bore very striking similarities in their appearance, the same colour hair, the same height, same body type, very similar facial features. It was understandable how this might have happened," Rossman said.

"But it happens so rarely and the fact that everybody's making such a big deal out of the story shows that it doesn't happen very often and to do some sort of genetic testing to verify everybody that comes in your door when it's not necessary would not be a good use of resources."

Appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show two years after the car crash, the Ceraks and Van Ryns said they held no bitterness about what had transpired.

When asked about the Van Ryns, Whitney said they were "amazing".

"I love the Van Ryns, love them to death," she said. "They took great care of me, and they can still look me in the eye and be like, 'Whitney, I love you.' ... They're amazing people, all of them."

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