The morning after becoming one of five finalists competing on next week's season finale of NBC's "America's Got Talent," the largely Long Island members of the Northwell Health Nurse Choir are reiterating their pandemic message of hope.
"We're showing people that doing what we love helps us find our resiliency and decrease our burnout and create a temporary escape from all the chaos" as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, says Deer Park's Christian Montanez, 29, of North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. Speaking by phone from Los Angeles Thursday, he adds that, "For everybody that's going through a tough time, remember to do what you love. Because how are you going to take care of other people if you're not doing well yourself, emotionally, physically?"
Seven members of the 18-strong choir, gathered from 10 mostly Long Island hospitals, stood onstage Wednesday after impressing the judges a day earlier with their performance of Andy Grammer's "Don't Give Up on Me." On Wednesday's results show, they were paired with the vocal trio 1aChord to see which had garnered the most viewer votes to continue.
"When they called us up with 1aChord," Montanez recalls, "I got nervous because they had killed it" with their rendition of "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. "Onstage, I can hear my heart pounding. And when they called our name, I was over the moon."
The groups exchanged hugs. "After it all happened," remembers Keshia Jaboin, 30, an assistant nurse manager at North Shore University Hospital's Katz Women's Hospital, "they came up to us and told us how talented we were and how happy they were for us and that they'll be OK, that they're just so happy they made it that far." Jaboin, who was born and raised in Queens where she still lives, and earned her nursing degree at Garden City's Adelphi University, says the two groups went to a restaurant afterward to celebrate together.
Despite such exuberant moments, the nurses say they remain aware of the reality of the pandemic. Elmont's Shonda Ramirez, 51, a nurse case-manager at Queens' Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, says she reminds her retired parents in COVID hot spot Georgia, "Remember: You're New Yorkers. Follow what New York is doing!"
Another choir member, Selden-raised Josh Hombrebueno, 25, of Centereach, who got his nursing degree at Stony Brook University, works in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit at South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore. He says the hospital's separate ICUs for COVID cases "have been steadily filling up."
Yet while scientists stress vaccination is key to stemming the pandemic, the nurses are reluctant to say so onstage. The producers have not prohibited them from doing so, Ramirez assures, but, "This is 'AGT's platform," believes Westbury's Winnie Mele, 63, director of perioperative services at Plainview Hospital. "It's really not a venue for us to speak about it unless we're asked."
But, she quickly appends, "As nurses, we follow the science. I think a lot of people out there are listening to the lady in the supermarket or the guy at work, and they're not following the science. We're begging people to get educated and to follow the infectious-disease doctors."
"Everything is so politicized," laments Ramirez. "But if they ask," she says, "yes, we're going to answer."