Monday, December 29, 2008

Laura Van Ryn and Whitney Cerac -- seeing what we want to see

Recently, I watched Dateline about two families whose lives intersected when four college kids were killed in a highway accident and one survived. The hospital or the coroner mixed up the identities of two of the young women, so that one family received a call saying that their daughter had died (when in fact she was alive), and the other got a call that said their daughter was in a coma (when she had actually died). The family of Laura Van Ryn went to the hospital every day for 5 1/2 weeks and took care of the person in that bed before they realized that it wasn't their daughter.

Admittedly, the circumstances were difficult. Whitney Cerac , the woman who Laura's family took care of all that time, had a serious head injury and couldn't tell them who she was, her face was badly swollen, and she was in a neck brace. Still, Whitney Cerac was a full 4 inches taller than Laura Van Ryn (!!!), had different colored eyes and wore a belly ring. Yet 100 people visited her and didn't realize that she was not Laura, including her boyfriend of three years.

The first thing that occurred to me was how much we often see what we want to see, despite evidence to the contrary. The other is that we see what we're *told* is there -- like the Stanley Milgram experiment back in the 50s or 60s on obedience to authority where he found that college kids were likely to follow orders and administer electric shocks to other students when authoritative figures told them it was okay. In this case, it's not so much obedience but rather acceptance -- if the hospital says this is Laura, dammit, it must be Laura! Also, Laura's family never went to identify the body. They just accepted what the hospital said about her being dead.

It was an eye-opener although I'm sure that those of us reading about this would think that it could never happen to us because we'd be smarter than that, but how do we know?

Instead of the Ceracs and Van Ryns being mad at each other, they've become best friends and co-wrote a book about the story called Twist of Fate. They seemed very religious; I was thinking the whole time how I would sue the ass off the hospital big time and I was waiting to hear Matt Lauer discuss a civil suit, but that was never mentioned once in a two-hour episode; that part of this very tragic story was refreshing!


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