For more than a month, the VanRyn family of Michigan believed their daughter Laura was making a slow but steady recovery from a horrific traffic accident that killed five of her fellow students at a Christian college in Indiana.
They set up an internet weblog to track her progress in recognising everyday objects and playing simple children's games. But as she recovered from her coma, a terrible truth began to dawn on them: this was not their daughter at all, but someone else entirely.
Yesterday, the family confirmed there had been a terrible case of mistaken identity. Laura VanRyn was killed in the collision on 26 April between a university minivan and a tractor-trailer and the woman they thought was Laura was a fellow student who bore a remarkable resemblance to her.
And so the cycles of grieving and recovery have been abruptly reversed. The student who survived, Whitney Cerak, had been presumed dead and her family held a funeral service several weeks ago which attracted more than 1,000 mourners.
Unknown to anyone, though, the body in the coffin was Ms VanRyn's. A memorial service for VanRyn is now scheduled for this weekend.
Both students were classically good-looking Midwestern girls with hearty complexions and long blonde hair. Survivors failed to make a proper identification of their fellow students and, since handbags were strewn all over the accident site, there was no easy way to confirm their identities. Nobody thought to conduct any analysis of blood or dental records and Ms Cerak's face was swollen and badly bruised.
Lisa VanRyn, Laura's mother, wrote on her blog: "Our hearts are aching as we have learnt that the young woman we have been taking care of over the past five weeks has not been our dear Laura ... It is uncanny the resemblance that these two women share."
It was Laura's boyfriend, according to news reports, who first suspected the recovering coma victim was not who everyone assumed it was, based on the things she was saying and doing. Then her father started wondering, too, when he used a pet name that she did not recognise. In the end, hospital officials resorted to dental records and confirmed that the patient was indeed Cerak, not VanRyn.
The two families appear to have bonded over the bewildering experience. They put out a joint statement explaining the mix-up and added: "Our families are supporting each other in prayer, and we thank our families, friends and communities for their prayers."
Both women were students at Taylor University, a small evangelical college in Upland, 60 miles north of Indianapolis.
Taylor's student body president Brent Maher told a television interviewer: "Certainly there are those people that are devastated today because the person, their friend, who they thought had lots of hope and was progressing every day they now found out she has died.
"There are also those who are rejoicing because Whitney is alive."
"I still can't get over it. It's like a fairy tale," said Ms Cerak's grandfather Emil Frank.
Ron Mowery, the coroner of Grant County, in Indiana, said: "I can't stress enough that we did everything we knew to do under those circumstances, and trusted the same processes and the same policies that we always do."Reuse content