UPLAND, Ind - Whitney Cerak Wheeler says she has no memory of the crash that killed four Taylor University students and one university employee.
She also has no memory of the confusing five weeks that followed the crash when the rest of the world, including her own family, thought she was dead. She attempted to describe the sudden revelation as she spoke to Taylor University students Wednesday.
“The best way I can describe it is being the first one to fall asleep at a sleep over,” said Wheeler. “And so much has gone on a night that when you wake up in the morning you’re like were we even at the same party?”
Wheeler made a special appearance at Taylor as the university marks the 10-year anniversary of the crash that killed students Laurel Erb, Brad Larson, Betsy Smith, Laura Van Ryn, and university staff member Monica Felver.
The aftermath of the crash became international news when it was discovered that the injured Wheelerhad been misidentified as Van Ryn, who had died in the crash. Wheeler spent three weeks in a coma, then two weeks in a semiconscious state as the world thought she was Van Ryn. Family, friends and the Taylor University community held a public funeral for Wheeler as she was actually recovering from a head injury.
Five weeks after the crash, Wheeler was able to write her name during a physical therapy session, and the Van Ryn family learned that their daughter was gone. Wheeler's family suddenly learned their daughter was still alive.
For Wheeler, the wave of emotion was overwhelming as she began to grasp the identity mix-up, and the deaths of four friends.
“Not only did I have the feeling of guilt, but I also had the feeling of anger, always being in the public eye, never wanting to be,” Wheeler said. “Everything I had known about myself, my identity, was swallowed up by this accident. This is how I was known, just as that girl that survived.”
After some time, Wheeler told the students that the ordeal had deepened her faith in God. Through that faith, she forged a new identity for herself as she recovered from her brain injury.
“Doctors said that I would never be the same because of the brain injury that I had,” Wheeler said. “But it’s a good thing that we don’t put our hope in doctors, but we put our hope in God, because four months after this accident I was back on campus and starting my sophomore year again.”
Wheeler also shared some lighthearted moments during her presentation to the students. She joked about knowing what was said about her at her funeral. Most of the comments were nice, she said. But some were also embarrassing.
“Like on this very stage, my sister Carly, she told my entire campus that I didn’t shower enough,” she said. “One of my pastors said I wasn’t very good at sports. But how often do you expect the person to come back and confront you about that?”
Wheeler thanked the Van Ryn family for the love and care they showed her, even after realizing she was not their daughter. She told students the Van Ryns treated her like a member of their own family, and that bond remains strong today.
Ten years removed from the crash, Whitney Cerak Wheeler and her husband Matt have three children together. Whitney works as a group leader for middle school girls in North Carolina.