Students learn life lessons through Rachael’s First Week



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Angi Fiege, mother of the late Rachael Fiege, now speaks to students to bring awareness about safety tips that could save lives. Ike Hajinazarian Buy Photos

A few minutes before their 8 a.m. class, about 100 students filed into the Mobley Auditorium inside the School of Public Health, talking, laughing and looking groggily at their cell phones. The guest speakers with Rachael’s First Week prepared their presentation at the front of the room.

Among the speakers was Angi Fiege, an IU parent who lost her daughter, Rachael, last August when she fell down a flight of steep stairs and hit her head. Her friends carried her to a couch and left her there to rest.

They didn’t know her brain was bleeding and that she would die the next day from her injuries.

Fiege said she had the idea in February to create something that would change the way people think about taking care of each other both at parties and on campus.

“I’m not unrealistic in thinking people are going to drink in college,” she said.

When it comes to college, Fiege said people are suddenly faced with adulthood and have to determine how to make good decisions and take care of each other.

She said it wasn’t that her daughter was ignored but that her friends thought letting her sleep would be the right thing to do.

Fiege said she contacted the IU Advocate Program and spent the next few months working with them to create the curriculum.

“You can take it whatever avenue you want to,” said Sarah Hemming-Meyer, a program facilitator and resident physician with IU Emergency Medicine.

The program was piloted at Rachael’s high school in Zionsville, she said. It continued to travel and gain momentum shortly thereafter.

She said she hopes the program will become virtually self-run and include students, who after their first year away at college, would return to speak to seniors from their high school about what they learned. It would be a kind of “teach the future mentors” system.

“People just need to take care of each other,” she said.

Fiege said she knew she was going to have to bring Rachael’s First Week to IU because she was an IU parent. This was the first time she was invited to come and speak to this particular class, SPH-R142: Living Well.

The class instructor, Ben Smith, said the class is required for all freshmen living in Briscoe Residence Center and participating in the Fitness Wellness Living Learning Community.

He said hands-on approaches like this interactive lecture will help students learn to take care of each other and that calling for help can save a life.

Smith began class by handing the microphone to Alex Rhea, an emergency medical resident in Indianapolis who works with Fiege.

Rhea played a video slideshow telling the story of Rachael’s life from a silly little girl smiling widely at a camera to a beautiful young woman surrounded by friends and family who loved her.

The room fell silent as students arrived at the realization Rachael was at IU for barely two days before she died.

Throughout the video, sophomore Mary Baluyut, a friend of Rachael’s, had her hand on Fiege’s back, comforting her.

Rhea then returned to the presentation, saying tragedies like Rachael’s really do happen, even though they are preventable.

“The saddest ones are the 20-year-olds, the guys that are in your chairs,” he said.

Rhea passed the microphone to Rachael’s friends and teammates to speak to the class about where they were when they found out what had happened to Rachael.

Baluyut said she was at the party with Rachael and several other friends from the Zionsville area.

Everybody noticed the stairs were steep, and Baluyut said she tried to avoid them while she was at the party. She left about 15 minutes before the fall that killed Rachael.

The next morning, she said she woke up to several calls from Rachael’s mom. After she found out what happened, she went to the hospital to see her best friend on life support.

From there, she started calling Rachael’s friends, telling them they needed to get to Bloomington to say goodbye.

Freshman Dara Sturges said she was sitting in class in high school listening to other students share what information they had about the incident. When she tried to text Rachael, Rachael didn’t answer.

Sturges said she walked out of the classroom in the middle of class and drove down to Bloomington with the rest of the varsity soccer team.

Seeing her in the hospital bed, she was still beautiful with all her earrings in, Sturges said. She would have thought Rachael was sleeping had she not felt that Rachael’s hand was cold when she ?held it.

After the girls shared their stories, Rhea took the microphone back and addressed the class with what he said were the most important points.

He said students need to avoid walking places alone, know Indiana laws like the Lifeline Law, avoid taking open drinks from people and always watch out for each other.

The discussion that followed included personal accounts of calling for help for somebody from both the class and Rachael’s friends, as well as what to look for in a person that might have sustained a serious head ?injury.

Going out with a “designated buddy” is never a bad thing, Fiege said.

It could save a life and all the pain and suffering that comes from losing a friend or family member.

“There is never a minute of rest from this tragedy,” she said. “I can promise you that.”

After the presentation, freshman Jamie Bierman said she thought Rachael’s First Week was a powerful tool.

“I thought it was a great thing to show people of this age and demographic,” she said.

Once the class had emptied out and students had stopped to approach her, Fiege said she saw the impact the presentation had on them.

In the future, she said she hopes to work with smaller groups so people will feel more comfortable sharing their stories.

Fiege said that while Rachael’s death was incredibly hard for her, but there may be a silver lining people can take from her experience.

“She was a good kid,” she said. “You guys would have loved her.”

Through this program, Fiege said, Rachael is having an impact on people everywhere, just as she did when she was alive.

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