Northwell nurse choir heads to ‘America’s Got Talent’ finals

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The Northwell Health Nurse Choir poses with "America's Got Talent" judge Howie Mandel, who used his Golden Buzzer option to advance them to the show's Hollywood rounds. (Photo by Tyler Golden, Courtesy of NBC)

A choir of Northwell Health nurses advanced in the popular amateur TV contest “America’s Got Talent” last week, earning a golden buzzer and sending them to the show’s Hollywood finals later this summer.

For Julieta Hernandez, a nurse at Cohen’s Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, singing in the choir has enabled her to pull postponed dreams out of her back pocket and celebrate the resilience that her nursing colleagues around the world showed throughout the pandemic.

“I immigrated from Argentina and I wanted to be a nurse my entire life,” Hernandez said in a phone interview during a shift at Cohen’s. “But I was a DACA recipient, so I couldn’t pursue it right out of high school. And then when I had my daughter, she actually had to stay in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit [at Cohen’s Children’s Hospital] for a couple of days. And when I saw the nurses and how well they treated her and how they treated her like a family, that’s when I really said, ‘I have to do this. This is my calling.'”

Following studies at Adelphi University, Hernandez got her job at the hospital two years ago, working in the same unit that cared for her daughter. Last November, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, she heard that the Northwell system was seeking nurses to sing for a Nurse Heroes Live event. She auditioned and joined a choir of over 300, and was picked as one of a chosen few from that group to form the choir that would audition for “America’s Got Talent.”

“We all met for the first time in March,” Hernandez said. “At first, it was really scary. It was the first time all of us had taken our masks off in front of people. We actually all had to get vaccinated to be part of the choir, which we were so excited about doing. We were still getting frequent testing, but to be able to be yourself in front of people again and to not be alone anymore was so wonderful.”

Hernandez has sung most of her life, even attending the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens for vocal performance in high school, but turned to nursing as a practical way of work. She says the situation is similar with many of her fellow nurses in the choir.

“A lot of us kind of put our dreams in our back pockets,” Hernandez said. “And this was just like such a wonderful opportunity to revisit that and …so late in life be able to pursue like our dreams. And I think that’s what ‘America’s Got Talent’ does for everybody. It just gives everybody a platform to be able to reach for the stars. And it’s so amazing to be living it.”

The choir was then invited to formally audition for “America’s Got Talent” in April, and took the opportunity.

Before judges Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara, Simon Cowell and Howie Mandel, the group then sang a medley of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” with Hernandez’ impressive vocal run near the song’s end complimented by Klum.

The nurses were greeted by rapturous applause and a standing ovation from the four judges and host Terry Crews, and following appreciative words from Klum, Vergara and Cowell, Mandel used his “golden buzzer” option to advance the choir to the show’s finals in Hollywood.

“I honestly think I blacked out,” Hernandez said. “And then the next thing I remember is the confetti falling in slow motion. It was so surreal. I look back on it, and it’s like, I wasn’t even there. Like I’m watching somebody else on TV. But we’re so happy. And we love Howie, he’s our favorite person in the world!”

The choir wasn’t allowed to tell their families or friends the results of the audition and had to save their excitement for a Northwell-hosted watch party at CitiField, where they found out the news.

“Watching them watch us get it was almost better than living it ourselves,” Hernandez said.

For now, the Northwell nurse choir is back at work and will film live Hollywood episodes of the show in August. Hernandez says the response has been thrilling.

“We’re getting all of these texts and calls from not only from our friends and family, but from nurses around the world that feel inspired by what we did,” Hernandez said. “And they’re thanking us for representing them. And that was always the original message that we just wanted to send out resilience and hope to the nurses that are still struggling and all of America that’s still struggling with COVID. And and to feel that we accomplished that even a little bit, it’s just so gratifying.”

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