Mother delivers cautionary message

An Indiana University freshman’s friends thought they were doing the right thing by helping her into bed after she tumbled down the stairs at a party.

It was the second night away at college for Rachael Fiege, and she was drinking and partying with her friends from Zionsville at a house.

She fell down the steep stairwell into the basement and hit her head then wasn’t feeling well. She fell asleep, and her friends didn’t call for help until morning when her face was looking blue. She was in cardiac arrest by the time paramedics arrived and was later determined to be brain dead at the hospital.

Accidents while drinking and partying are one of the most common causes of death for college students, especially freshmen. Now Rachael’s mother, Angi Fiege, and her friends from Zionsville are traveling around central Indiana, sharing information with groups of high school and college students about being safe on campus, warning signs that can save lives and resources students can use to get help in an emergency.

The program, Rachael’s First Week, has been primarily delivered to groups of 20 or 30 students at a time. But when it comes to Franklin Community High School this week, they’ll deliver the information convocation-style for the first time, addressing the entire senior class, Angi Fiege said. Franklin will be a unique presentation, since students will bring their Chromebook laptops and be able to participate in live polls and submit questions anonymously during the presentation, she said.

With prom and graduation occurring in the final few weeks of school, students are on the cusp of major changes in their lives, Franklin Community High School teacher Julie Tennell said. Those teens are still developing and making the transition between being children and adults, so providing information and helping them make smart choices before they head out is important, she said.

“It was important to us that we help prepare our seniors for some of the issues they’re going to face as they go to college. They are going to be granted enormous freedom and a lot of responsibility they may or may not be able to handle,” Tennell said.

“Our goal really is for our kids to be college-ready. With that comes a lot of different issues in addition to being ready for college academically.”

Rachael Fiege was like many high school students heading to college, her mother said. She was an athlete playing soccer in Zionsville, a sharp student, a good daughter and a loyal friend who had connected with lots of her classmates.

Her parents dropped her off on a Wednesday night in Bloomington the week before classes began in 2013. On Thursday, she told her parents she was going to a party nearby with some of her friends and some upperclassmen she knew from Zionsville. Angi Fiege, who was working overnight at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, texted her daughter about midnight to check in.

The small house had a steep stairwell going down to the basement. Rachael Fiege’s friends later said that she had commented as she peered down the staircase earlier that she would be at the bottom of those stairs before the end of the night.

About 1:30 a.m., her premonition came true. After tumbling down the stairs, she didn’t have any noticeable cuts or bruises, but she didn’t feel so great. Rachel Fiege and the others at the party had been drinking, so her friends helped her back upstairs and let her lie down in a bedroom to recover. Nobody knew at the time, but she suffered a traumatic head injury that worsened as she slept until morning.

By the time her parents got to the hospital in Bloomington, she was on a ventilator and had gone into cardiac arrest multiple times. Her eyes were fixed and dilated, and doctors said she was brain-dead, Angi Fiege said. They decided to donate her organs, and she died about 24 hours after the accident.

Angi Fiege said she doesn’t blame her daughter or anyone at the party for what happened. The problem was that nobody really knew what to do when her daughter was injured. So Angi Fiege created the Rachael’s First Week program, aimed at teaching students how to be safe when they’re at college.

“They don’t really understand the dangers of things that they’re doing. They’re definitely risk takers, and they’re out on their own and are used to having responsible parents taking care of them. Forty percent of all deaths of college students occur their freshman year. A huge amount are caused by accident. These kids are very much in danger,” Angi Fiege said.

One of the most important points of the program is to deliver information about the state’s Lifeline law, which grants people immunity from criminal charges if they are drinking while underage but call for help in an emergency.

Often students won’t call for help if someone passes out from drinking, gets hurt or is the victim of sexual assault because they had been drinking and don’t want to get in trouble, Angi Fiege said. But waiting until the next day or until they sober up can make a huge difference, she said.

The program also includes topics such as safety at parties, watching your drinks, utilizing the buddy system at parties or at night on campus, suicide prevention and keeping an eye out for others, even people you don’t know.

Students will hear from some of Rachael’s friends, since the message connects better when it comes from a peer instead of an adult, Angi Fiege said.

The presentation at Franklin is the first time the program is being delivered to a large group, and technology is playing a special role. Students will be able to anonymously participate in polls on questions such as “Do you intend to drink at college?” and “Do you drink to get drunk?” that will be displayed in real time on a screen so they can view the results and discuss them. Students will be able to submit questions anonymously that can be answered during the presentation.

Typically the program is delivered in small groups without teachers present, so that students feel more comfortable asking questions or discussing topics. By keeping it anonymous in the large group, students shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask a question that could help save their lives or the lives of friends, Angi Fiege said.

Polls have shown that students often plan to experiment with drinking, drugs and sex at college but also overwhelmingly don’t expect anything bad will happen to them.

That’s a dangerous mindset that Angi Fiege hopes to make students think twice about before college.

“Kids in this age don’t even believe anything will ever happen to them,” Angi Fiege said. “We want to change the culture in colleges to people really watching out for each other. If someone is unconscious, they’ve drunk too much, they’ve fallen, they’re doing drugs, you don’t overthink it. You just call for help.”

Rachael's First Week

Rachael Fiege died in August 2013 after falling down the stairs at a house while drinking at a party. Her mother has started a program to educate high school seniors and college students about staying safe at school. Here are the main points the program:

  • Indiana Lifeline Law: Presenters share information about the Lifeline law, which grants immunity to people who call for help in an emergency even if they’re doing something illegal such as drinking underage or doing drugs.
  • Party safety: Information about the effects alcohol can have on the body, as well as tips to protect yourself, such as watching your cup so that no one slips drugs or other substances into it without your knowledge.
  • Suicide prevention: College freshmen can get overwhelmed with stress from classes and independence, so students should be aware of some signs to watch out for with roommates and friends and whom to contact for help.
  • Buddy system: Students should stick together whether walking on campus late at night or at a party and be ready to act if something strange is happening. The message is especially geared toward women to help prevent sexual assault.
  • Changing the culture: Encouraging students to help out other people, even if they don’t know them, and watching out for others.