Writer / Janelle Morrison Photography / JJ Kaplan
Local residents may remember the tragic loss of Rachael Fiege on August 23, 2014, just days before she was to begin classes in Bloomington, Indiana. The news rocked the community and devastated Rick and Angi Fiege, her parents, and Jeremy, her older brother.
Out of that tragedy and perpetual grief, the Fiege family found a purpose in the wake of Rachael’s
death, a cause to advocate for and a way to honor her memory.
Angi, a critical care physician for Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, founded Rachael’s First Week, a program that educates high school seniors and college freshmen on some of the dangers found at college. Recently, Rachael’s First Week presented programs at Zionsville Community High School that included her family and close friends who have just graduated from college. Rachael’s First Week will also be present at the Memorial Cup for Soccer at Grand Park in June that was started in memory of Rachael.
In addition to her advocacy work and work as a physician, Angi has recently accepted the position as Safety Team Medical Director for NASCAR/AMR. She has served as a physician medical consultant for the organization for the past two years. As the medical director, she will collaborate with NASCAR medical liaisons and consulting physicians in addition to other medical related responsibilities.
Angi and Rick are fans of motorsports and are excited about her new venture. She spoke about what this opportunity means as she looks further down the road and into her “new” future after a period of wondering what her career would be like, what her marriage would be like and what her life, in general, would be like in the absence of her daughter.
“Over the last couple of years, a lot of what has happened with Rachael’s First Week is parallel to my
coping with what’s happened to our family,” Angi said. “You can’t stay in that horrible state of immense grief. It will destroy you. I have learned to tolerate what’s happened to our family, and it is reflected in Rachael’s First Week.
I came up with this program after receiving donations to a foundation that was created in Rachael’s name. I received several suggestions on what the money could be used for, but I felt like those suggestions, while noble, did not embody who she was a person. She was a person of immense caring. She didn’t have any enemies that I’m aware of. Rachael was a unique kid that could fit into almost any social situation, and people liked her. She had a killer smile and was always giggling.”
Angi explained that after going around to different schools and communities, presenting Rachael’s First Week, she began to feel that young adults in the pre-college and early college age group have a false sense of invincibility.
“If I can use my daughter as an example that illustrates that, yes, this can happen to you, then perhaps these kids will be more likely to intervene or make better choices. The kids that we talk to are at liberty to create a culture of caring and looking out for one another just as their parents have cared and watched over them. If Rachael’s legacy can mean that another life is saved, then it is worth doing. It’s not what I want, but it’s what God is giving me to deal with in this life, and if I can do something positive that honors Rachael, then that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t have a choice, and this is how my husband, my son and I have chosen to deal with it.”
Angi uses her experience to help her patients’ families cope when dealing with the loss of their loved ones, an unfortunate part of her job as a physician. She has learned that sometimes sharing her story helps to comfort them, and she shares with them her hope for a better day.
Angi and Rick have been married for 32 years and have beaten the odds of their marriage surviving the loss of a child. The sad reality is that a large percentage of couples divorce after such tragedies.
“I can see why so many couples get divorced after losing a child,” she said. “People grieve in different ways and at different times. There have been times that I have been completely distraught and was being ridiculous, and Rick would say, ‘Hey, get a grip on it. There are people that have it worse than us.’ It’s a ‘tough-love’ approach, but he is right. It doesn’t do me or us any good to just sit here and be miserable. We made the commitment to not let this destroy our marriage, and our relationship is stronger now than it’s ever been.”
Now, only a few years later, Angi is preparing for the next chapter of her life, and with that comes her new position with NASCAR. Not a stranger to speedways and race tracks, she can navigate the infields of tracks all over the nation with ease. She was recently awarded this year’s “Above and Beyond Award” for her work presenting lectures on driver and crew safety at NASCAR’s annual summits.
“I didn’t seek out the job; rather, it came to me,” Angi explained. “The representatives called me up and explained that the drivers wanted to see the same doctor at the ‘window net’ every time there’s an accident or medical issue. I believe that after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s concussion, the drivers realized that it could happen to them and were seeing that things weren’t necessarily consistent, from a medical treatment perspective, at every track. I think they want a stronger Neuro-program, and that is my goal and purpose to deliver that.”
She explained that her number one goal is to create consistency with the medical treatment of the drivers, beginning from her team’s arrival to the accident site and the approach to the window net to how the drivers are evaluated and transported to the medical facility with great care taken to provide as much privacy for the injured driver as possible.
“It is important for me to work at building ‘doctor-patient’ relationships with the drivers,” Angi
emphasized. “While many of the drivers have their own personal physicians, their physicians are not traveling with them. I am. I want them to feel comfortable with my team and build that trust between us. If they have G.I. distress the night before a race, I want them to feel comfortable calling us, so that we may relieve their issues before spending four hours in a hot car the next day. Most of the drivers travel with their families. If their 4-year-old develops an earache and is miserable, we can care for the members of their families, so they can focus on preparing for their big day.”
Angi will focus this year on identifying who the medical related staff are at each track that they travel to and establishing relationships with those individuals that she and her team will be working with going forward.
“I want everybody to feel confident in their respective roles and with the members of my team,” she said. “The drivers will feel confident because we will be confident that everyone knows the exact protocol when an accident occurs.”
Angi drew the parallels of her work with NASCAR, her shifts at the hospital and her advocacy work with Rachael’s First Week. The nature of working with NASCAR drivers, critical care patients and college bound young adults who have suffered, or may suffer, fatal injuries similar to the ones that ended her own daughter’s life is not an easy task for Angi, but she is determined to make a difference when and where she can using her vocation, her experience and her daughter’s memory.
She concluded, “None of it is easy, and you don’t get to choose some of the stuff that you’re dealt with in life, but you do have a choice in how you deal with it.”