Rachael’s first week


A look at how one mother is keeping the memory of their daughter alive

By Sophie Pappas

Bustling into the room, her arms full of papers and supplies for the meeting ahead, Angi Fiege, MD, sets down her things on the conference table stretched between us. Her thin fingers adjust a badge that reads “patient whisperer” on her collared shirt.

She graces me with a big smile, even though I’m not fooled for a second. This woman knows grief, I tell myself, and soon I would learn just how much.

The tragedy

I had heard of Angi’s daughter, Rachael Fiege, while living overseas last year. Headlines everywhere from the Huffington Post to the UK’s Daily Mail were blasted with titles such as “After the fall,” or “No blame in college girl’s death.”

Friends throughout the Middle East forwarded me articles after noticing that Rachael attended my alma mater, Indiana University, and she was from my hometown.

Rachael had just started her college career at IU when, two days after moving to campus she attended a party with other 2013 Zionsville Community High School grads. Alcohol was consumed and sometime during the night, Rachael fell down a flight of stairs and hit her head.

Nearby friends and partygoers laid her down to rest not realizing that Fiege had suffered a traumatic brain injury. She lay there, with her brain bleeding internally, as time went by until finally someone called an ambulance during the early morning hours. By the time she was en route to the hospital, her heart had stopped beating.

When Angi, a pulmonary and critical care doctor with IU Medicine, heard the news she pleaded with the doctors in Bloomington to fly her daughter via helicopter to Indianapolis. But Rachael was too unstable to fly. She never woke up, and was pronounced dead on the morning of Aug. 23.

“Rachael should be alive today. She had a survivable brain injury,” Angi said. “We shouldn’t even be here talking about this.”

But we are talking about this, the “this” being that fact that Rachael’s friends should have called for an ambulance as soon as she hit her head. She might be alive if they had.

“That guilt is something her friends will have to deal with the rest of their lives,” Angi said.

The bond

Rachael was Angi’s best friend, and the two shared everything from the details of Rachael’s friendships and soccer achievements to her hopes of becoming a nurse.

“Other parents always say ‘Yay! The kids are out of the house!’ when their kids go to college, but honestly I felt like I had a big hole in my heart when we were moving Rachael,” she said.

As the mother of an almost two-year-old daughter, I told Angi I know how she must have felt. Without any uncertainty, my little girl is my best friend as well.

“It’s so special,” Angi told me calmly. “There was nothing stronger than the bond between Rachael and (me).”

It was no surprise then, that after Rachael’s death, Angi found herself wandering through life aimlessly and without hope.

“The first few months there was no joy in my life – nothing to be happy about,” she said. “But then I realized that’s not how Rachael would want to be remembered.”

It is only now that Angi has found a way to let Rachael’s legacy live on.

Educating seniors

Along with a group of emergency doctors and residents from the IU School of Medicine, Angi has started a program called “Rachael’s First Week.”

The curriculum, designed for high school seniors about to leave for college, gives kids information on the dangers of alcohol, drugs and sexual assault. It also provides the facts surrounding the Indiana Lifeline Law, a protective measure that would prevent any underage student drinking alcohol from being arrested if they were to call 911 to help a fellow minor in trouble.

IU resident Alex Rhea, is helping Angi with the program and said that everyone knows there is a culture of alcohol at college.

“But for many students they aren’t prepared to deal with what can happen when people are drinking,” Rhea said. “We are taking the opportunity to make sure what happened to Rachael doesn’t happen again.”

Rachael’s legacy

On May 23, Angi’s group of medical residents met for the first time with the ZCHS seniors. I was invited to attend, and after we all watched an emotional memorial video about Rachael and her death, the seniors engaged in talks about how to help friends in danger.

As I was making my exit after the program, Angi walked me out and we embraced in a big hug, as I suspect only two mothers can do, after the loss of one’s child. She whispered to me softly: “You go home and hug your baby girl.”

I told her I would, knowing that deep down she wishes she could go home and hug Rachael.