From Hospitals to Carnegie Hall: Nurse Choir Heals Through Harmony

Roni Robbins

December 09, 2021

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When longtime registered nurse Winnie Mele auditioned for a nurse choir organized last year by her New York employer, Northwell Health, she never expected to be part of a group that would be a top 10 finalist on the television show America's Got Talent (AGT).

Nor could she imagine performing at Carnegie Hall December 6 as part of the MasterVoices' A Joyful Noise concert marking the holiday season and celebrating a return to live performances following the pandemic. Hundreds of essential and frontline workers received free tickets to the performance to thank them for their sacrifices during the global crisis. The choir also has prospects on the horizon for other national appearances.

For Mele, a nurse for 41 years and director of perioperative services at Northwell Health's Plainview Hospital in Plainview, New York, singing was just something she did every day on the way into work and on the way home. "I find solace in music," Mele told Medscape Medical News. "[During the pandemic] I played a lot of music. I don't know, it soothes me."

The music became even more vital as a stress reliever during a pandemic in which nurses are stretched to their limits, dealing with death on a daily basis, witnessing their colleagues leave the profession, and battling staffing shortages, she said.

Like the other members of the Northwell Health Nurse Choir, Mele sent in a 30-second video audition of herself singing. Not long afterwards, she and the other nurses received an email with a link to practice either Stand by Me or Lean on Me and submit a video singing the piece.

The videos of the original 50 members of the choir were spliced together for a compilation of the two songs in a virtual performance as part of the Nurse Heroes Live! streamed concert in last Thanksgiving. The concert honored nurses, highlighted the nursing shortage, and raised money for nursing scholarships. It was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and included celebrity performers, along with the choir.

From there, the choir's following on social media took off, attracting the attention of AGT. "We never expected it to blow up like it did," Mele said. Nurses in the choir were asked to apply again if they were vaccinated and willing to travel for the AGT competition. In February, the group was whittled down to 18.

Still, the members, who come from different hospitals, nursing specialties, and demographics, did not meet each other until early 2021 with only had a handful of in-person rehearsals before heading to California for the 16th season of AGT.

On performing in person, participant Keshia Jaboin, RN, said, "It literally gave us chills." Jaboin has been a nurse for 7 years and is an assistant nurse manager at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York.

The choir's performance at AGT garnered the Golden Buzzer from comedian judge Howie Mandel, which sent them directly to the final stage of competition, the live shows. The choir advanced through multiple rounds, ending in the top 10 on the show's finale.

"We were all paralyzed by the whole thing. We thought we'd do our audition and then come home," Mele recalled.

Interviews during the AGT season were the first time many of the nurses had a chance to rehash what they'd been through the previous 1½ years during the pandemic, Mele said. "Everyone tried to find resilience in their journey through COVID. We never had the opportunity before that to address it. It was the first time we filleted ourselves open. I still get choked up" thinking about it, she said. "It brought us very, very close, the commonality of the tragedy we were all blessed enough to live through, how we coped, how it affected us and our families, how so many used music for healing. It was a real pivotal time for us as a group."

Last month, the Northwell Health choir performed for their peers, nurses from around the country, at the American Nurses Credentialing Center national conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jaboin said this performance was "way more emotional" than AGT. "To be on stage in front of America's Got Talent, we were just trying to get our message out there, what we are about as nurses, not just the caring we do at the bedside." But with her peers, there was more of an empathy about their shared experiences and struggle, she added.

Mele agreed. "A lot of people were crying." While the choir sang You Will Be Found from the Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen, a photo montage of nurses from the pandemic was shown. "It just brought back so many memories of the pandemic."

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