By People Staff
July 24, 2006 12:00 PM

The mistake was as heartrending as it was bizarre: For a month, 19-year-old Whitney Cerak’s family thought she had died in a car wreck that killed five people. Then, on May 31, they learned that the girl they had buried was actually Laura VanRyn, 22, another blonde, popular student at Indiana’s Taylor University. “When I heard Whitney was alive, I just cried and cried,” her grandfather Emil Frank, 86, said at the time.

Indeed, the Cerak clan has a lot to be happy about these days. Celebrating Whitney’s progress on a blog he now keeps, Whitney’s father, Newell, reports that his daughter—undergoing intensive physical therapy at a rehab facility in Grand Rapids, Mich.—can walk more than 300 feet, play card games and has joined her family on outings for steak dinners and July 4th fireworks on a lake. “It was good to see her smile and eat caramel popcorn,” wrote Newell the next day.

She will require months of antibiotics to combat an infection in her left leg, which was broken in the crash. Her grandfather says Whitney knows about the case of mistaken identity. “She does grasp it,” he says. “I know she does.” For now, he says, the family is focused on her day-to-day improvement—and on keeping her spirits up. The last time they talked, he says, “Her grandmother and I told her we loved her and thanked her for being such a brave girl.”