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Dr. Angi Fiege, a nighttime critical care physician at Methodist, sees the sickest of the sick. But saving lives for Dr. Fiege doesn’t stop at Methodist. By day, she speaks to high school and college students in a raw, emotional presentation about her daughter, Rachael, who died five years ago when she fell down a flight of stairs at Indiana University. “You look at a tragedy like this and there are two ways you can do it,” Dr. Fiege says. “You can deal with it or you can crumble.”
She whisks past the dark hospital rooms, subtle waves of light sweeping across her face, light that seeps into those sacred places where life wavers. Where death lurks.
She holds a 90-year-old woman’s hand in the middle of the night as she dies.
She stares at the swollen, tired face of an intubated young man.
She looks down.
And when Angi Fiege looks down, it is always there. The reminder. They are there -- three letters written on the white tips of her black Converse sneakers: RLF. Rachael Leigh Fiege.
The tears could pour out if she let them, dropping into the shadows that cast themselves into the night at IU Health Methodist Hospital.
This night and every night the past five years is just like the night Dr. Fiege’s world changed forever.
This night could be that night. But it isn’t.
And Dr. Fiege is grateful, at least, for that.
It was August of 2013 and Dr. Fiege had finished her shift at Methodist. She was feeling especially happy.
She’d been texting her daughter, Rachael, throughout the night. Rachael was giddy. She was a freshman at Indiana University and had just landed on the Bloomington campus. She was ready to study nursing, ready to follow in her mom’s medical footsteps.
They would be big footsteps to traipse behind.
Dr. Fiege is a physician in critical care and emergency medicine – seeing the sickest of the sick that come into Methodist. She works on professional racing circuits. Last April, she was named medical director of NASCAR’s safety team. She’s a fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
She is that hero mom, the kind a young woman could really look up to. And Rachael was a daughter, a soccer player, a fun-loving, beautiful woman, Dr. Fiege looked up to, too.
And so, as she left after that August night shift, Dr. Fiege was hoping to hear from Rachael.
Instead, a call came from a strange Bloomington number. It was the hospital, the emergency room. They had Rachael. Dr. Fiege needed to get there.
Dr. Fiege asked what had happened. No one would tell her.
But, Dr. Fiege knew what to ask. Is she on a ventilator? Yes. Did she go into cardiac arrest? Yes.
“At that point in time,” Dr. Fiege says, “that’s all I needed to know.”
Rachael’s smiling face is projected onto a massive screen inside Cathedral High School. Dr. Fiege is a silhouette in its light.
It’s Tuesday morning. Dr. Fiege has just spent a weekend at a race, rushing home to take a shift saving lives. This time, though, it’s not at Methodist.
The presentation is called Rachael’s First Week. It’s raw and heartbreaking.
It’s supposed to be.
This is Dr. Fiege’s way of making something good out of something devastating.
“You look at a tragedy like this and there are two ways you can do it,” she says. “You can deal with it or you can crumble.”
Dr. Fiege chose not to crumble. She chose to tell the story of her daughter’s death to high school seniors and college freshman across the state.
She chose to teach them to save lives.
Rachael was at a party, doing what a lot of young adults new to college do. She was at a house with friends she knew. There was drinking.
She slipped and fell down a flight of stairs. But then Rachael stood up. Her friends helped her back up the stairs and onto a couch. They checked on her throughout the night.
They didn’t know Rachael’s brain was bleeding. By the time her friends realized something was wrong and called, it was too late.
Dr. Fiege has looked at Rachael’s CT scan. There were no fatal injuries to her head. If someone had called immediately, Rachael would be alive.
Rachael’s older brother, Jeremy, is part of the presentation. He talks about Indiana’s Lifeline law. It allows underage drinkers to call 911 – to report an injury – without any repercussion.
Dr. Fiege wants these kids to know that it’s OK to call. They won’t get in trouble. The presentation warns of the dangers of drinking, dangerous signs to look for and other trends that plague this demographic. Depression. Drugs. Suicide. Risky behavior.
“I see your beautiful faces and I know you’re getting ready to go out into this world. There are a lot of dangers out there. As a parent, I’ve experienced the worst of it,” Dr. Fiege told Cathedral students this week. “I also know that you guys are well-equipped, you can use your instincts and you’ll do great.”
Dr. Fiege has something to give to them. It’s a medallion, like the one she wears around her neck, like the ones they handed out at Rachael’s funeral.
“I want you to think about this being a circle, that you want to close the loop when somebody gets into trouble,” she says. “Please take this, stick it in your pocket, give it a rub every now and then. When you’re out at a party, think about what we talked about today. Remember Rachael. Remember our story.”
Dr. Fiege didn’t set out to be a doctor. She started on an ambulance. But as she worked there, she wanted more. So, she went to nursing school.
She started doing flight nursing and loved it. But after 10 years, she wanted more. She needed to know more. Medical school it would be.
This year marks 32 years working at Methodist.
“I am totally a Methodist girl,” Dr. Fiege says. “I am dyed in the wool Methodist.”
She is a beloved doctor inside the hospital. She is a mother figure to the new nurses – her “baby nurses.” She is a mentor to up and coming physicians.
Yet, she admires the people she works with immensely.
“This is such a hard job,” she says. “All these people on the night shift, they are the heroes.”
Every night is different. One might be quiet and calm. The next might be chaotic and unpredictable.
Dr. Fiege is the calm amid the chaos.
“She is just the most amazing person ever,” says Jennifer Lommel, M.D., an emergency medicine resident who works with Dr. Fiege and is part of the Rachael’s First Week presentation.
Dr. Lommel has, time and time again, watched Dr. Fiege running on empty to make sure she is everywhere she needs to be. She has never missed a Rachael’s First Week in its four years of existence.
“It comes from her desire,” says Katie Byrd, M.D., an emergency medicine resident and Rachael’s First Week presenter. “If she can help prevent this from happening to one other person, that will be worth it to her.”
There was never any anger, never any blame. Of course, Dr. Fiege wishes those kids at the party would have known to call 911.
But she told the police – even as she was driving down to Bloomington that night, even before she knew exactly what had happened -- that she didn’t want those kids arrested.
“I don’t think anybody did anything wrong at that party other than they were ignorant of what to do,” she says. “They were guilty by omission as opposed to commission.”
Dr. Fiege knows those kids loved Rachael. So many people loved Rachael. More than 1,000 people came to her funeral. Money poured in.
The Fieges didn’t know what to do with the money, so they held off. A few months later, they were urged to come up with an idea. People suggested a scholarship in Rachael’s name, maybe a gym.
But that didn’t represent what Rachael was, Dr. Fiege says.
“If we are going to make a legacy contribution, let’s do something that would embody Rachael,” she says.
By May, just nine months after Rachael’s death, the presentation was up and running.
Dr. Fiege still gets choked up when she talks about Rachael. There is nothing worse than losing a child, she says. And she has seen plenty of death.
“There’s always the saying, ‘Rachael wouldn’t want you to be sad,’” Dr. Fiege says. “Well, to me, that’s not something that should ever be said. That may be true, but it doesn’t address the issue. It’s finding the inner strength to deal with it.”
Dr. Fiege has done that. And along the way, she has become a hero to so many.