After the fall
She had only been on campus for two days and everyone knew her — the girl who fell down the stairs. As the reporters called and the rumors spread, her parents tried to remember she was more than that.
In the days before they buried her, no one knew how not to come undone. Her roommate dropped out of school. Her father kept abruptly needing to leave the room. And her mother, who looked so much like her already, started wearing her daughter’s clothes. In the news and on campus, Rachael Fiege became known as the IU freshman who died at her first college party. The one who never even made it to her first class.
The scene played out in her parents’ minds again and again – Rachael tumbling down the stairs, her friends watching over her through the night, the paramedics trying to save her.
Angi Fiege, her mom, had a recurring nightmare where her daughter was lying on the couch at the party, dying without anyone knowing. Angi saw Rachael struggling to text her for help, trying to say that she wouldn’t make it to morning.
Every time Angi woke, for a fleeting moment, she tricked herself into forgetting. Rachael was just off at school. Maybe today she would call and tell her about dorm food or getting lost on campus.
A second later, Angi would remember.
* * *
She thought of the day in August when the two of them set up Rachael’s dorm room at Wright Quad. They unpacked her Zionsville High School T-shirts, found a place for her soccer cleats and smoothed a Drake poster onto the cinder block walls. Rachael color-coded her class schedule and campus map. Angi set up a ladder to the top bunk, afraid her daughter might fall.
As the two hugged goodbye, Angi was happy with this place where the rest of Rachael’s life would begin. The dorm room was a testament to all the possibilities that lay ahead — club soccer, a sorority, nursing school, anything she wanted.
Two days later, Angi was working her overnight shift as a doctor at Methodist Hospital’s intensive care unit in Indianapolis. She and Rachael were texting as Rachael headed to a house party with a few of her high school friends.
“Stay in a pack,” Angi said. She wasn’t too worried about her daughter. She trusted her to be smart. She and her daughter had talked about drinking and how to stay safe many times. After Rachael arrived at the party, they texted back and forth until near midnight.
The next morning, as Angi’s shift was ending, she hoped Rachael would call to tell her how the night had turned out.
But when the cell phone rang, the voice on the other end was a stranger’s.
“Are you Rachael Fiege’s mother?”
“Yes,” Angi said.
“This is Bloomington Hospital. We have your daughter here.”
“Has she been injured?”
The nurse wouldn’t tell her what happened, but after her years of working the ICU, Angi knew the right questions to ask.
“Is she intubated?”
Rachael was on a ventilator. Angi demanded to speak with the doctor.
“Has my daughter cardiac arrested?”
At the party, Rachael had fallen down the basement stairs and hit her head. Her friends moved her upstairs to a couch and kept an eye on her. They didn’t know her brain was bleeding internally. They thought she was sleeping. No one summoned an ambulance until morning. By the time the hospital called Angi, Rachael’s heart had stopped three times.
When Angi drove to Bloomington and arrived at her daughter’s bedside, the mother inside of her looked over Rachael’s body, searching for some sign of pain. There were no marks or bruises anywhere. Her makeup was perfect. Her hairbands were on her wrist, like usual. She was still wearing her silver cross around her neck.
She looked beautiful.
The doctor inside of Angi knew to reach for her daughter’s face. Slowly, she lifted Rachael’s eyelids. Her pupils were dilated far beyond normal, masking most of the hazel in her eyes.
It was too late.
By the time the hospital called Angi, Rachael's heart had stopped three times.
For days, Rachael was on the front page and the evening news. In between satellite pictures of the house where she fell and stock footage of IU’s campus, the reporters skimmed the basics of her biography: a blonde-haired Zionsville girl who played soccer and wanted to study nursing.
Angi and Rick knew most people would never know, or maybe didn’t care to know, who their daughter really was.
So they didn’t talk about the years they spent waiting and praying for baby Rachael to arrive while Angi struggled to stay pregnant. Or how when their older son Jeremy, then 7, asked their pastor at Zionsville Presbyterian to pray for his mommy’s tummy, it seemed to do the trick. Rachael was born on July 15, 1994.
She grew up to be the kind of person her teammates looked up to, her teachers admired and her friends depended on for comic relief. She’d run around her house prancing with high knees, kicking her Converse-clad feet out and waving her arms above her head, pretending to be a giraffe. She’d dress up in a Big Mac costume and sing “Pretty Fly for a White Guy.” For a high school class project, she acted out Lord of the Flies with Barbie dolls.
In her senior year, she tutored students with learning disabilities. Then she’d insist the students were her friends, too, and ask them to sit with her at lunch.
She loved Drake and Beyoncé, but Bob Marley, too. She didn’t wear makeup until late in high school, around the same time she got her braces off. She had gauges in her ears that her mom hated and a belly button ring that her dad found out about on Twitter.
Going to IU was an easy choice for Rachael. Her brother Jeremy was in school there, and her close friend Mary would be, too. She signed up for classes in chemistry and biology, and declared herself pre-nursing. But in secret she told her mom that eventually she wanted to follow in Angi’s footsteps and become a doctor. They joked about working together one day, two blondies in scrubs, saving lives.
When Angi went back to Bloomington, the reality sunk in that her daughter would never have that life.
Rachael wouldn’t get to see campus change from summer to fall, feel the leaves crunching under her boots on her way to class. She wouldn’t lose her voice at a game in Assembly Hall or pull an all-nighter at the library. Would never wear an IU cap and gown.
The thoughts overwhelmed Angi in the August heat. She opened the door to let air through and continued packing Rachael’s T-shirts into boxes. The Drake poster came off the wall.
The girls on Rachael’s floor paused as they walked by, jaws dropping as they realized that the room of the girl who died was open. When they looked in, they saw a small-framed woman with thick blonde hair. From behind, she almost looked like Rachael, or what they could remember of her.
Not one girl stopped to talk to Angi. They probably didn’t know what to say, she thought. They’d had less than 48 hours to get to know Rachael, and now they never would.
She wouldn’t lose her voice at a game in Assembly Hall or pull an all-nighter at the library. She would never wear an IU cap and gown.
After Rachael’s death, her father visited her grave every morning. Reminders of her were everywhere. Her smelly shin guards were still in the trunk of Rick’s car. When he walked into Target, he would flash back to Rachael as a teenager, running through the aisles, picking out what she needed for a school project. When he saw a commercial for American Idol, he thought of the times they watched the show together.
Angi’s breakdowns could last hours. When she walked past Rachael’s old room, when she heard another mom talking about her daughter’s wedding dress, when she heard Beyoncé on the radio, she couldn’t stop crying. For months she wore her daughter’s silver cross and wrapped her wrists with the elastic hairbands Rachael had been wearing when she fell. She wore her shirts and her jeans, just to feel closer to her.
The only escape that made sense to Angi was going back to work. So at the end of September, she put on her scrubs and laced up Rachael’s black Converse sneakers and returned to the Intensive Care Unit of Methodist Hospital.
Work made Angi think about all the times she had talked to Rachael about the things she’d seen in the ICU. She was blunt about all the things that can happen when drugs and alcohol enter your system.
“When you have too much to drink, your ability to protect yourself goes out the wayside,” Angi told her. “Don’t let that be you.”
As Rachael neared college, Angi was more insistent.
“You’re 19, you’re a grown woman,” she said. “When you go to college, I can’t protect you. You have to be smart.”
After Angi would wake from the nightmares of Rachael trying to text her, she’d go over these conversations in her head, and worry about the way people, mostly other college kids, thought of her daughter. It was so easy for them to distance themselves, to think of Rachael as a crazy partier or a drunk.
And the ones who didn’t blame Rachael wanted to blame her friends. They wanted Angi to talk about the Lifeline Law, which gives legal immunity to underage drinkers who call 911 to get help for someone having an alcohol-related medical emergency. They wanted her to say that if Rachael’s friends had known about it, she could have been saved.
But Angi would never know if that was true.
She wondered how many students assumed that what had happened to Rachael could never happen to them. Did they think they couldn’t have been the friends at that party?
Did they think this couldn’t happen again?
She wondered how many students assumed that what had happened to Rachael could never happen to them.
IU Health Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) program provides students with confidential support in times of need. In this video, the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Nancy Stockton discusses counseling for grief and alcohol abuse.
The Lifeline Law was enacted in 2012 to give legal immunity to any underage drinker who calls 911 to get help for someone having an alcohol-related medical emergency. Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis and Attorney General Greg Zoeller discuss what students need to know about the law.
There’s never a need for an IU student to walk home drunk or alone after a night of partying. Two programs at IU, SafeRide and Safety Escort provide transportation free of charge. They can be reached by calling (812) 856-RIDE. Jose Mitjavila, president of the IU Student Association, explains how the program works.