July 27, 2010 — -- On the day Arizona teenager Abby Guerra's parents planned to bury their daughter, state officials instead offered a formal apology to the family for a tragic hospital mix-up that misidentified the girl as the deceased victim of a car crash -- despite several identifying markers that the hospital missed.
"Let me send to the families, our sincere apologies from the Department of Public Safety," Sgt. Kevin Wood, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Public Safety told Guerra's family Monday as well as the family of Marlena Cantu who were incorrectly told Cantu survived last week's crash. "As everyone in the room knows, that was incorrect."
It's a tragic mistake that officials are reviewing because even though the girls' injuries were extensive and they did look similar, there were several unique characteristics that could have tipped off hospital staff. For instance, Cantu was two inches taller than Guerra, still had her wisdom teeth and had a scar on her abdomen from an appendectomy.
"You find yourself thinking: How can this be?" Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics told ABC News Monday. "We have DNA testing. We have excellent dental records on many people. We have X rays, all kinds of records kept on people. How can it be that we didn't identify someone a week later?"
All of those details about Cantu would have been discovered by an autopsy, but one was not performed until days after the accident due to a heavy caseload, the medical examiner said.
"It was our understanding that all survivors had been transported to a local hospital and identified. As such, the Office pursued dental records for [Abby] Guerra, the only occupant who had not been identified. Due to office's caseload, the postmortem examination was scheduled for and occurred on Friday, July 23, 2010," said a statement released by the Medical Examiner's office.
"We're all angry at the situation," Guerra's cousin told ABC News' affiliate ABC15 after the hospital admitted the mix-up this weekend. "We could have been at her side, telling her to fight. It might have given her more strength."
Guerra, 19, was traveling home from Disneyland in California with four friends when the car in which she was riding blew a tire and rolled over.
Her injuries were so extensive that no one, including visiting friends and family, realized the mix-up.
"We all went in [to the hospital room]," friend Colleen Donovan told ABC15. "We were talking to Marlena, thinking it was Marlena. Even Abby's parents went in there. Nobody knew."
After an anxious week hoping their daughter would recover, Cantu's family was notified that she had been dead all along.
For Guerra's family, the news ignited several sometimes contradictory emotions.
"Happy, mad, sad, I mean, you can't explain it," Guerra's aunt, Dorenda Cisneros, said. "It's a lot of different stuff."
And for Cantu's family, a little closure.
"It's comforting to know she's not suffering," the girl's father, Frank Cantu, said.
Now, Guerra's family is holding out hope for a recovery as the girl lays in critical condition.
"We've lost her once... we don't want to lose her twice," Guerra's cousins told ABC News Sunday.
Not the First Tragic Mix-Up
Guerra's family is not the first to deal with a tragic mix-up.
In 2006, Whitney Cerak and Laura Van Ryn were returning to their college campus in Indiana when the vehicle they were riding in was hit by a truck.
Van Ryn died and Cerak was in critical condition in the hospital, but because of a mix-up, Cerak's family held a funeral for her while Van Ryn's family kept vigil in the hospital.
That time, it wasn't until five weeks later, when Whitney started to regain consciousness, that both families were told there had been a horrible mistake.