Hematology Nurse and America’s Got Talent Finalist

Zoom image: Janelle Garcia, BS '19 on the red carpet outside America's Got Talent. Janelle Garcia, BS '19 on the red carpet outside America's Got Talent.

Jenna had no idea her nursing journey at UB would lead her to the America’s Got Talent finals during a global pandemic – for choir singing. 

A life-changing preceptorship

Rewind a few years, and Garcia, originally from Queens, decided to attend UB School of Nursing for her nursing education.

“UB was my home away from home,” she says. “I was very lucky that UB gave me not only the best opportunities, but a great cost and scholarships that gave my family a sense of stability. I was the second daughter in my family to go to college, so that financial support helped a lot.”

Today, Garcia works as a hematology-oncology nurse at North Shore University Hospital, one of two Northwell Health flagship hospitals. But that wasn’t always the path she planned to take.

“Heading into my rotations, I was set on working on a psychiatric unit,” she says. “But after my final rotation with a preceptor at Roswell, I fell in love with hematology and oncology.”

Upon completing her bachelor’s degree in 2019, Garcia saw an opening for a hematology role at North Shore and jumped on it.

“The UB nursing preceptorship at Roswell changed my life,” she says. “I was so lucky to be a part of that experience with the best preceptors and clinical instructors there. It’s why I chose my specialty.”

Combining two talents

Jenna Garcia and fellow nurses performing.

Flash forward to fall 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and Garcia received an email from Northwell inviting nurses to participate in a virtual choir to provide hope for health care workers during the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“I sent them the videos I had of myself singing and they picked me and 49 other nurses to participate in the choir,” she says. “As you can imagine, singing in a choir on Zoom wasn’t perfect. But it turned out really well.” 

The recruiters at America’s Got Talent (AGT) agreed, and they reached out to Northwell’s human resources team after stumbling upon the video to invite the choir to audition for the show. 

“At first, AGT was only allowing eight choir members to go,” she says. “But we pushed for everyone to participate because we had already formed a bond and this was an opportunity for us to be together for the first time in months. AGT upped the number to 18, so Northwell held auditions to determine who would participate. I was lucky to be one of them.” 

The Golden Buzzer

The Northwell choir held six rapid practices in March 2021 and then headed to Los Angeles in April for a five-day trip that included in-person practices and their big audition. It was there that the choir received the coveted Golden Buzzer from judge Howie Mandel for being the single act that season that moved him emotionally. This made the choir one of only five acts sent straight to the quarter-finals live show.

“Hearing the buzzer created such a sense of release,” Garcia describes. “The judges said such kind things to us, and I was so emotionally overwhelmed from being a nurse during COVID-19 and from the virus touching my own family. It was a lot to describe that during interviews and auditions.

“I was one of the people who took golden flakes that fell above us when the buzzer went off,” she adds. “I keep them as a souvenir in my house.”

After that, the choir flew home. They returned to Los Angeles for the quarter-finals in July.

“I grew up watching Simon Cowell on American Idol, so it was a dream to sing in front of him,” she says. “The entire process was so cool and so much fun.” 

The choir then went on to the finals, where they ended their journey.

“It’s still so hard to wrap my head around the experience,” she says. “I always loved to sing, but I was never a performer. Singing was never a part of the plan; everything happened by chance. I ended up at North Shore by chance. I never expected COVID-19 to happen. The virtual concert was only meant to provide comfort during the holidays. And American’s Got Talent finding our video was by chance.” 

Reminded of her purpose

Jenna Garcia on America's Got Talent.

“I loved the entire experience, but I am a nurse at heart,” she says. “I knew the journey my patients were going through, and I missed them. Even through the exhaustion I experienced from the pandemic, I was craving that work and patient connection. This reminded me why nursing is my passion.”

Garcia doesn’t want any of her choirmates to forget the experience, so she has created videos and other content for the Northwell Health Nurse Choir’s Instagram page.

“I didn’t realize the amount of healing I needed until I met the choir,” she explains. “When we began, we were strangers. The person who selected the 18 nurses wanted to represent a full sense of nursing ranging across all ages, experiences and specialties. But what we all had in common was the understanding of what it was like to be a nurse at the epicenter of the pandemic. It was so nice to have people who understood those feelings. Now, I know their loved ones and I go to them for advice. They’re my second family.”

The choir is still continuing today, with exciting plans for the future. 

“Nursing and singing is the best job,” she says. “I couldn't have asked for more.”

Published January 5, 2022