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.
By Jessica Contrera
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 â€“ 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.
The reaction to Rachael’s death played out in a pattern all too familiar at IU.
The news cameras rolled in, the University offered condolences and curious students looked for Rachael’s profile on Facebook. No one knew what role drinking had played in her death, but many were quick to assume. In online comments, news columns and whispered conversations, people were eager to cast blame.
“Some people simply cannot handle the amount of drinking that is typical nowadays.”
“The students who were with her should all be expelled.”
“Doesn’t even make it to the first class before she gets drunk and dies.”
But as Rachael’s family pieced together the details of what really happened that night, they realized something that others would prefer to ignore: what happened to Rachael could have happened to any student.
The 19-year-old freshman had suffered her fatal injury doing something most students would consider an essential part of the college experience – partying.
At IU, as at other campuses around the country, the rituals play out every weekend. Freshmen gather for pregames in their dorm rooms, drinking Smirnoff bought by someone else. Fraternities throw ragers with blacklights and water coolers sticky with jungle juice. Roommates host house parties where Bacardi shots are poured in the kitchen and beer pong is played on the porch.
Decision making blurs. Motor skills slow. Mistakes and accidents happen. Usually they end with nothing more serious than an “I’m sorry” or a “My bad.” Maybe a drinking ticket or a trip to jail. Most of the time, these moments become just another college story, an anecdote to laugh away.
But some accidents can’t be fixed.
It’s difficult to know how many IU students have died after drinking – or the extent that alcohol or other drugs played in their deaths. Citing privacy concerns, the University and its police department declined to release virtually any information regarding student fatalities. The Monroe County coroner declined to release toxicology results and autopsy reports. But since 2000, at least 10 IU students have died in circumstances connected with drugs and alcohol.
A sophomore fell off a balcony at a Little 500 party. One student with alcohol in her system died in an apartment fire. Another plunged from a ninth-floor window at Briscoe Quad after receiving his first drinking ticket.
A freshman fell and, like Rachael, hit his head. He did a keg stand at a fraternity party before banging his skull against a door frame. His friends thought he had passed out from the alcohol.
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 Beyoncè, 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.
The Fieges will never understand exactly what happened to their daughter that Thursday night in August.
They know Rachael put on her makeup at her friend’s dorm and walked to the party on North Park Avenue.
Angi and Rick later found photos of the party on Rachael’s phone. They saw her dressed in a coral T-shirt and black leggings, her hair in a loose bun on top of her head. In most of the pictures, she was arm-and-arm with friends, many of whom they recognized. In two of the photos they saw a long narrow beer pong table with red Solo cups lined up in a triangle.
Her parents scanned for signs of things getting out of control. They didn’t deny that Rachael was drinking, but as hard as they looked at the scene displayed on the screen, their daughter didn’t look very drunk.
The rest of the story they learned from the police and a student who’d been at the party. Around 1 or 2 a.m., shortly after the cell phone photos were taken, Rachael decided to go down into the basement. When she fell, people ran to her aid, but she didn’t look hurt. Except for a barely noticeable cut on the back of her head, beneath her blonde hair, she didn’t have a scratch.
Her parents don’t know if Rachael was conscious enough to walk up the stairs on her own or if her friends carried her. The friends laid her on a couch, let her go to sleep and watched over her through the night.
Rick and Angi believe Rachael’s friends thought they were doing the right thing. To someone who didn’t know a lot about head injuries, Rachael probably seemed fine. Maybe the alcohol affected their decision-making. But maybe, even if they were sober, they still would have thought she could sleep it off.
They wonder whether she knew what was happening. With Rachael’s mom being a doctor and the volunteering Rachael did at hospitals, her parents worry that later in the night, she knew she needed help, but couldn’t say it. That’s where Angi’s nightmare comes from.
“Of all the people in that room when she fell, there was probably only one person there that had the medical background to realize she was in trouble,” Rick said. “And that was Rachael herself.”
It remains unclear to what extent drinking contributed to Rachael’s death. But for most students brought to IU Health Bloomington Hospital after a night of partying, their medical emergencies can be easily traced back to alcohol or drugs.
The staff sees hundreds of these cases each year. On a typical home football weekend, there will be at least 10, sometimes 20. During Little 500, IU’s biggest party weekend, there are usually more than 100.
Often the students are brought in unresponsive. They drank too much, too fast, and then their friends found them lying in the bathtub. A stranger found them passed out on the sidewalk. Or the police carried them out of a bar.
Others tripped and broke an ankle. An argument turned into an all-out brawl. Someone let them have their car keys back. Or they woke up confused in a stranger’s bed.
Dr. Andrew Watters, the head of the hospital’s emergency department, said situations like these are becoming both more frequent and severe.
“The legal limit is .08,” Watters said. “Historically, it was not uncommon to see college kids coming in with .20s, .30s fairly typically. That’s pretty drunk. Now, it’s not even rare to see a .40 or a .50.”
Watters said he thinks the pattern started about five years ago, when hard alcohol like vodka seemed to increase in popularity. Often the vodka is drunk with caffeine, like soda or Red Bull. The stimulant effect of the caffeine offsets the depressant effect of the alcohol for a few hours.
“So when you drink hard, drink hard, drink hard, your body is doing OK, doing OK, doing OK,” Watters said. “Then the stimulant wears off, and the depressant is still there. And whoosh – you totally crash.”
By the time the students reach the hospital, it’s too late for the doctor to impress on them the severity of what they’ve done. So he pleads with the friends who brought the drunk or injured person in.
“You guys were there tonight, and now she’s here,” he’ll say. “You’re lucky, she’s going to be fine this time, but next time, there’s no guarantee. We’ve seen people go missing. Just never turn up … People fall off decks. People are found behind dumpsters, sexually assaulted. Physically assaulted. We see it every year.”
Watters doesn’t expect them to stop drinking. But he hopes they’ll at least watch out for each other.
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 BeyoncÃ© 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?
One Sunday in November, a couple of Rachael’s friends came to visit Angi. Laura, who had known Rachael since first grade, was studying special education at Purdue. She was finding it increasingly hard to stay at school on the weekends. Julia, who had played soccer with Rachael, belonged to a sorority at Ball State University. During the week, they both kept busy with classes and meetings. But when Friday came, the reality of Rachael’s loss settled in.
It made them feel better to see Angi. So they curled up in her living room to look at old pictures of Rachael and talk about how they were doing at school. Angi listened, wearing jeans she had picked out of Rachael’s closet that morning.
After what happened, Laura and Julia didn’t want to go to parties. They both hated stairs. They compared all their new friends to Rachael.
“I keep having dreams that she’s still alive,” Laura said. “Like, it all happened. But instead of how it actually turned out, in my dreams, she came out of it.”
Julia said she had dreams that Rachael comes down to ask for her phone charger back. Another girl had told Julia that Rachael appeared in her dream and said, “Shh, you can’t tell anyone I’m here, I just came to see you.”
Angi laughed. Then she started crying. Except for the recurring nightmare, Rachael had never appeared in her mother’s dreams.
“Why does she show up for everyone else?”
Angi started to shake. She asked them to deliver a message the next time Rachael popped into one of their dreams.
“Just tell her I love her,” she said. “Tell her, I miss her.”