"[They] just moved me emotionally like I haven't been moved in a few years. Just a guttural, good, emotional crying inside and laughing with joy all at the same time," Howie Mandel tells PEOPLE

By Karen Mizoguchi
June 01, 2021 10:00 PM
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AMERICAS GOT TALENT -- Season: 16 -- Pictured: Howie Mandel
Credit: Art Streiber/NBC

America's Got Talent judge Howie Mandel gave a deserving group of singing nurses his Golden Buzzer.

The season 16 premiere saw the comedian, 65, celebrate the Northwell Health Nurse Choir from New York by sending them straight to the live shows after their audition medley of Ben E. King's classic "Stand By Me" and Bill Withers' hit "Lean On Me."

Speaking with PEOPLE about his reaction to the 18 choir members' performance, Mandel looks back on the "heroes" of 2020 belting out a song with so much meaning and relevance after an unprecedented year due to COVID-19.

"Because of what we've gone through — and I mean the collective, everybody in the world — when you're traumatized, it makes you more emotional and I think as a planet, we've been traumatized and the reason that it's not totally devastating was because of [the nurses]," he says.

Mandel also notes, "Traditionally, I don't really respond amazingly to choirs only because it's really hard to focus. But aside from who they are, what they are and what they do for a living, this [choir] was really good. Each individual solo was amazing. On any given year they still probably would have done really well."

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT -- "Auditions" -- Pictured: Northwell Nurse Choi
Credit: Tyler Golden/NBC

"[The choir] moved me emotionally like I haven't been moved in a few years. Just a guttural, good, emotional crying inside and laughing with joy all at the same time, just an emotional explosion that made me do it," Mandel explains of his reasoning for pushing the Golden Buzzer.

"Timing is everything. I come from the world of comedy where timing is everything. And ultimately this was the perfect time for the perfect talent to make me do whatever is considered the perfect thing to do on America's Got Talent," he says.

As for the song choice, Mandel calls it "perfect," adding, "Everything was perfect. It was like all the stars aligned. And then I just went 'bang' this is just … there can't be a moment that just checks every box that you'd want to check. It's making me happy. It's making me emotional. I'm just in awe."

And Mandel's fellow judges couldn't agree more. Simon Cowell called the group "amazing," Sofia Vergara praised the choir's "beautiful, heartfelt" performance, even calling it "dynamic" and "perfection," and Heidi Klum said "it was beautiful to watch."

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AMERICA'S GOT TALENT -- "Auditions" -- Pictured: Northwell Nurse Choi
Credit: Tyler Golden/NBC

"What makes this choir so special is we're all frontline nurses, you know, we're not professional singers. We take care of patients," said choir member Winnie Mele, director of perioperative services at Plainview Hospital who has been a nurse for over four decades. "I mean, I lived through the AIDS epidemic, and that was really sad. But everybody didn't die in three months. And that's what, I think, takes my breath away when I think about what happened. It was crushing for all of us."

"Back in March, when New York was the epicenter of COVID, we were so scared. One patient became 10, 100, 1,000. Nobody knew how many people COVID would kill," added Christian Montanez, a registered nurse at North Shore University Hospital. "Patients were dying left and right. We were getting sick, our families were getting sick."

"But we went back out there. Because the battle wasn't done and we knew that there were others that needed our help as well," said Emanuel Remilus, a nurse at Cohen Children's Medical Center.

Later, Mele shared, "It's just been a dark, trying time for all of us but the one thing that's bringing us a little bit of light and a little bit of hope is music. ... This choir actually has been a beacon of hope for us."

America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.