By Kate Hanzalik
Brilliant dancers feel the rhythm in their bodies. When life-long dancer Nikky Fiorello danced, she felt the rhythm. Today, three years after the 30-year-old’s sudden death from cardiac arrest, her mother Kate Fiorello describes some of the qualities that make Nikky forever loved and unforgettable to so many people.
“She was very passionate, with joy and anger! She was quick-witted and could spot-on impersonate. She had a great singing voice, but really only used it comedically. I thought she would have been ideal on Saturday Night Live. When she was little, she would jump around and dance whenever music was on, particularly when her dad was playing guitar or banging it out on the piano. Most fun for me was watching her and her sister Danielle dance it up at weddings, the DJs always loved them. Her friends called her NikkyBoots because her eyes were as wide as the fearless hero from Puss in Boots.”
One morning while a senior at SUNY Albany, a friend couldn’t wake her up, her eyes rolled into the back of her head. “By the time the EMTs had arrived, Nikky was awake,” Kate said. “When we got to the hospital she said that it was ‘crazy that I’m in the hospital, I am fine.’ The doctor said she had some type of seizure but could do no testing as it was the weekend.
Life went on. After college, Nikky earned her MBA at Union Graduate College and moved to NYC. Working in compliance she started with FINRA, then Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, climbing the corporate ladder, often questioning her career path even with her success. One morning, Nikky called Kate. “Mom, I just woke up on the bathroom floor. I must have passed out on the way to the shower.”
Still, life went on. At 30, she was an assistant vice president at BNP Paribas. By then she had her own Manhattan apartment, her circle of friends and loved ones had grown. She dreamed of starting a family. She had her health, or so it seemed. She ate right, exercised, even took Salsa lessons. After an evening kickboxing class on January 6, 2020, she went home, made lunch for the next day, talked to her cousin Clare and went to bed. The next day she was found dead on the bedroom floor.
It was later determined that she died from congenital LongQT Syndrome (LQTS) 3, a condition where the heart’s electrical impulse was delayed and her heart did not beat, causing sudden death. The median age of death for those who have LQTS is 32. “People with LQTS may be at a greater risk when they exercise (LQT1), when they have an adrenaline rush (LQT2), or as in Nikky’s case, when they are asleep (LQT3)” said Kate.
Meanwhile on January 7th, 9 a.m. rolled around at BNP Paribas, and Nikky hadn’t shown up at work. Her coworkers immediately started texting her and reaching out to their boss. By 9:30, now alarmed, they contacted anyone who might know where she was. By 10:30, Dominic heard from Nikky’s friend that she hadn’t shown up for work. Nikky’s siblings Anthony and Danielle were already aware because of their mutual friends. “We all had different things going through our heads. My son thought someone may have harmed her. Danielle, knew something was off, as Nikky would always respond to check-ins.”
Several friends went to Nikky’s apartment, but the superintendent refused to open the door until the police arrived. By 11:30 a.m. the NYPD found Nikky on her bedroom floor, no one was allowed in. Dominic was on the phone with them begging for answers. “Please, I’m her father. Can you just tell me if she is alive?” “I’m sorry. She’s not.”
“I kept walking around saying ‘this can’t be, this can’t be’ but I immediately understood that life would never be the same. I believe she had a peaceful death, that she just stood up and collapsed. Having read so many books on the afterlife I truly hope that she was just pulled into this great peace and light that she couldn’t resist. And that’s how I get through it.”
By 1 p.m., January 7, 2020, Nikky’s parents were on Interstate 81 driving the familiar drive to Manhattan, this time unable to think straight. They needed gas, got off at the Cortland exit, went to Starbucks for caffeine, got back on the highway and realized they forgot to get gas. The drive was arrhythmic, both like and unlike the past. One beat of Nikky’s life was a sequence of seizures, syncope, and sudden death, what Kate calls “a textbook definition” of LQTS. The other, a perfectly repeated pattern of pulses inscribed in the heart of Nikky’s father. “One of my husband’s fondest memories was driving back from NYC with Nikky, singing to the Beatles and Elvis Costello together for the entire drive.”
Early morning on Jan. 8th, they met with Nikky’s friends, and later the coroner, who struggled to find the cause of death until a genetic test gave them answers pointing to a condition the family hadn’t heard of. “Nikky had a variant in the SCN5A gene, which controls the sodium channels to the heart,” Kate said. “I believe it was a perfect storm, she had this variant, was slightly dehydrated from the kickboxing class the night before, and had been prescribed one of the many medicines with a warning statement ‘caution with prolonged QT.’ Together they caused a long QT interval and her heart didn’t beat.”
Just three months before COVID, they were able to hold a funeral for Nikky in Cicero, where friends and family expressed love and reached out. “Maybe life isn’t supposed to be easy,” she said, later adding, “I’m grateful we had her for 30 years, the love never dies. When Nikky is remembered, when her friends reach out to us, it means so much.”
CMC Dance Company, where Nikky danced growing up in Cicero, now has an annual Memorial Scholarship that covers the one-week summer Dance Intensive program for the awarded dancer. At their 25th anniversary banquet, CMC did a beautiful video tribute to Nikky and the first scholarship was presented.
The family is now focused on raising awareness about LQTS. Last April, they participated in the Syracuse HeartWalk, raising over $40,000 for the American Heart Association. They hope to achieve similar goals for this year’s walk on April 16, 2023. To learn more about Nikky’s story and LQTS, please search the 2023 Syracuse HeartWalk, We Love NikkyBoots Team under The Bonadio Group.