Mother of late IU student reaching out to H.S. seniors

Rachel Fiege died in an accident at a party, three days before starting class at IU.
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For the first time, we're hearing from the mother and best-friend of an Indiana University freshman who died from an accident at an off-campus party.

Rachael Fiege's family and friends are using what happened to her as a way to help other students avoid the same fate.

"She had been drinking, as had other kids at the party. She had gone down the steps, slipped and fell and hit her head," said Angi Fiege, Rachael's mother. "I believe she was semi-conscious. She had some friends take her upstairs and they laid her down on the sofa and thought she had just been drinking and needed to sleep it off. They didn't realize how serious this was."

It was very serious. But it was six hours after the fateful fall before Rachael got help. Her friends noticed she wasn't breathing and finally called 911.

Angi, who is an emergency room doctor in Indianapolis and was just finishing a midnight shift, also got a call. She rushed to Bloomington.

"I saw my baby lying on the bed, on the ventilator, unconscious, with all the signs of lifelessness, except for a pulse," said Rachael's mother, Angi.

"Mrs. Fiege left a voicemail saying you need to come to the hospital. There's been an accident," said Mary Baluyut, Rachael's best friend. "It wasn't until I got tot he hospital - she was on life support that I realized - this is goodbye. That was really awful."

Baluyut attended the party with Rachael, but left 15 minutes before she fell. She wanted to get to bed early for a meeting the next morning.

"It's just a big thing I've had to deal with is, I shouldn't have left her there," she said.

"I really believe that had somebody recognized this was a serious event and called for help right away, my daughter would be here and we wouldn't be having this conversation," Angi said.

These are some of the many messages Rachael's family and friends want to communicate during a new program called, "Rachael's First Week." They'll launch it this week with the senior class at Zionsville High School.

It's an effort Rachael's friends, who just finished their freshman year of college, are eager to help with. They'll be paired with emergency medicine residents, who work at IU Health with Angi, to talk to students split into small groups.

"As far as being able to relate to the situations they'll be going into, that's where you guys are really going to be key," a resident, Alex, told the group at a practice session.

"The high schoolers want to hear from you. But if you get stuck and you feel like you don't know what to say or do, the E.M. residents will be able to cover," Angi said.

The 30-45 minute presentation will start with a video highlighting Rachael's life. It's a powerful reminder of who was loved and lost.

"Maybe highlighting what happened to Rachael, because she was so well-known, attaching a face and a name to those experiences will hopefully help prevent those tragedies that happened to my daughter," Angi said.

"But there's really not enough words that I can even explain to these kids about what they're going into and how scary it is," Mary said. "It's fun, but it's probably the scariest first semester of your entire life."

But for Mary, it's bigger than that.

"Don't leave your friends. If you see someone that's not doing well, help them out. We just need to help each other out."

The goal is to make sure Rachael's first week isn't repeated.

"Quite frankly, what happened to Rachael could happen to anybody. It was an accident," Angi said. "They need to know what to do if they get into situations like this and not to be scared and to call for help, because seconds do count."

Angi wants her daughter to be known as more than the girl who fell down the stairs. She wants her to be known as the girl who was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside, who made friends with everyone regardless of status or popularity.

Rachael was going to school to study nursing, but also thought about being a doctor so she could work with her mom. Angi says it would have been nice to work with Rachael.

Zionsville High School students saw firsthand Friday the steps Fiege's family and friends are taking with the program.

"There's not a day that goes by that we don't think about it or, when we come home from school, we have to remind ourselves that, 'Oh, I don't get to see her come home.' It's so different now," said Srisha Pillay, one of Rachael's friends.

They talked to students at the school about Rachael and the lesson's they've learned from her death.

"When you go out, you have to watch out for yourself. You don't have your Zionsville bubble anymore," said another friend, Hanna.

"It's easy to make dumb decisions when you're in college is basically what I'm saying and you need to make sure you're in control of yourself and know where you are at all times," said another friend, Natalie.

While Angi Fiege admits the talks are "hard to watch," she knows her daughter would approve of the effort.

"I think she's proud of her friends for doing the things she would want done helping others," she said.

"We talked to 430 kids today. One student makes the call and saves someone. That's fine with us," said Hanna.

"When we got upset on the stage, they felt that with us. They cried with us and when they saw the video, that hurt them, too, and that's how we know we made an impact," Srisha said.

"There are a lot more people out there helping me than I originally thought. I thought I was going to go out there alone and embrace it and let it happen," said Zionsville H.S. senior Clay Young.

"It's really difficult to talk about it and I really admire them for being able to do this," said senior Kylie Williams.

After Friday's presentation, each senior received a lanyard with a card that has some takeaways and a medallion that Rachael's friends and family wear around their neck every day reminding them to always look out for each other.

After launching the program at Zionsville High School this year, Rachael's family hopes to expand it to other schools across Indiana in the coming years.