Looking out for one another

The question that popped up on the screens in the auditorium was still raw with Franklin seniors: “How do you cope with the death of a classmate?”

Don’t look for the right or easy answer, unfortunately, an Indianapolis emergency room doctor told the group of seniors. You seek counseling, talk it out with friends and family and work through the pain one day at a time.

Students at Franklin Community High School already have seen tragedy up close after losing two classmates to an accident at the Edinburgh dam last summer. Another classmate suffered a traumatic brain injury in the accident.

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The messages about looking after one another and making safe decisions after high school delivered by the Rachael’s First Week program Wednesday is one the doctor, Angi Fiege, said she hopes resonates well with the Franklin class that has already experienced a tragedy.

Her daughter, Rachael Fiege, died on her second day at Indiana University in 2013 after suffering a head injury from falling down a flight of stairs at a house party where she had been drinking. Friends and other people at the party didn’t realize how badly she had been hurt. She went to bed, and by morning her heart had stopped, and she was brain dead upon arrival at a Bloomington Hospital.

Angi Fiege, five of Rachael’s friends and two Indiana University Health doctors shared stories about their experience, tips on how to stay safe at college and information about resources that can help students in an emergency or if they are struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts.

“It’s never going to be someone you know, until it is,” Rachael Fiege’s friend Annie Aderman told students. “It was just awful to see (Rachael dying) and have it be your last memory.”

Teens and young adults who have been in an accident or been injured are some of the most heartbreaking patients that come into emergency rooms, especially when the accidents are preventable, Dr. Alex Rhea said.

The Rachael’s First Week program aims to equip students with more information, knowing that after high school is a time when students experiment with alcohol and drugs and may face a level of stress and freedom they’ve never had before.

Angi Fiege, who works in an intensive care unit at an Indianapolis hospital, tried to show her daughter examples of how dangerous drugs and drinking could be. They would see women at the Indy 500 race who were so drunk they couldn’t stand or even focus to dial their phones, she said. Her daughter didn’t drink in high school, that she knew of, but one of her first nights away at college she was drinking at a party with friends.

Among college-age groups Angi Fiege has presented to, nearly everyone has drunk alcohol at some point and most said they’ve consumed alcohol to the point of not remembering what happened, she said. It’s part of the culture of college, oddly, she said.

Among the Franklin seniors gathered Wednesday, many said they were already dabbling in alcohol. About two-thirds of students responding to a live poll during the program said they have drunk alcohol or used illegal drugs before. Another 60 students said they have seen someone who was unconscious at one point, but only 20 of those people said they did something to get that person help.

Students should be looking out for themselves but also being attentive to their friends and people they don’t know too and taking action if something is wrong, presenters said. Rachel Fiege’s friend Hanna Elliott shared a story of calling 911 for a heavily intoxicated girl whose friends had left the party, leaving her passed out on the bathroom floor. She didn’t know the girl but knew she needed help and called for it.

“I sat in the bathroom holding her hair for two hours. Was that what I was planning to do when I went out? No,” she said.

Students had an opportunity to submit anonymous questions during the program, which panelists answered. Although the program focused mainly on alcohol safety and resources for getting help, many of the questions regarded coping with loss or helping people who are depressed or suicidal. That surprised Angi Fiege, since the Rachael’s First Week program touches just briefly on suicide prevention.

She acknowledged the Franklin victims of the Edinburgh dam tragedy at the beginning of the program with a moment of silence and hopes that her daughter’s friends really connected with those students, since they’ve been through a terrible loss too.

Julia Ollikainen, another friend, knows how they feel. Her first semester of school after Rachael Fiege’s death was so busy, that the loss didn’t seem to affect her. But after being home for Christmas break and seeing friends and family, she began to struggle with her friend’s death. She stopped eating, lost more than 20 pounds in three weeks, starting abusing alcohol to numb herself and was prepared to drop out of school at Ball State University before she sought help from friends and counselors who helped her work through it, she shared.

Talking to someone or seeking help can make all the difference, said Aderman, who has also recently lost a sorority sister to suicide.

For those students who are still struggling, coping with the loss of a child, sibling, family member or friend is a hard process. Angi Fiege works in that environment every day and she still struggles finding the right ways to help those people.

“I think you have to open yourself up to the care and love of others. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t get better. It just gets to the point where you can tolerate it,” Fiege said.

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Franklin Community High School seniors were able to submit anonymous questions during the Rachael’s Last Week safety program presented Wednesday morning. Here’s some of the questions students asked:

How do I know if someone needs help?

Does the Lifeline law just cover alcohol?

How do you cope with the death of a classmate?

How do you comfort someone dealing with suicidal thoughts?

Do date rape drugs make drinks taste extremely salty?

What do I do if someone who is suicidal is pushing you away?

What do you do while you wait for help?

Is the Lifeline law only for Indiana?

What do you do if your friend drives drunk and you’re intoxicated?