Nurse Who Went Viral Lifting Up Coworkers With 'Amazing Grace,' Starred in Inauguration's COVID-19 Memorial

For nurse Lori Marie Key, with her broad smile and sweet voice, comforting bedside prayers with COVID-19 patients at suburban Detroit's St. Mary Mercy Livonia Hospital has become part of the job.

And one day last April, while the local outbreak of novel coronavirus was exploding, her daily huddle with fellow nurses to discuss patients' medical needs became a time to buck each other up in the face of so much sickness and death.

"Sometimes it would get so overwhelming for my co-workers that they have to go in the bathroom and just cry because of how their shift was going," the 29-year-old Key recalls.

A colleague asked Key, who grew up singing in a Baptist church, to sing to her beleaguered fellow nurses during a shift change. It was early in the morning after a 12-hour shift and Key belted out Amazing Grace. "I saw more than a few of my coworkers with tears in their eyes," she says. A colleague posted a video of the impromptu performance on social media and it went viral in a pandemic-gripped nation aching for glimpses of hope.

It was a challenging time. The surgical floor where Key worked was repurposed to serve only COVID patients, and healthcare workers had to adapt quickly—from tending patients in recovery, to trying to save patients in fast decline.

Supplies of some personal protective equipment ran low, patients were isolated, and even young patients were so weak they were at risk of falls. Alerts on the loud speakers were frequent. "You can just hear in the hospital that things were going kind of crazy," she says.

Key and her fellow nurses added a heartbreaking new duty to their shifts: holding the phone for dying patients in isolation so loved ones could say good-bye. "You want to do your best," she says. "And then you see that you're doing the best that you can and you still see these things happen. It can tear your spirit down."

Her viral rendering of Amazing Grace let to a remote appearance on Good Morning America and MTV recognition. Then the Biden inaugural committee invited her to sing at their National COVID-19 Memorial in Washington, D.C. on the eve of the inauguration.

Just as she did for her fellow nurses, Key, in her nursing scrubs, sang Amazing Grace Tuesday night before the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. with Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and a national audience watching on television and livestream.

The pre-inauguration event at twilight honored the memories of the 400,000 Americans lost to the pandemic to date. Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden lit 400 lanterns ringing the Reflecting Pool. Iconic buildings across the country—from New York's Empire State Building, to Seattle's Space Needle—were lit in solidarity.

Key says she was thrilled and nervous at the same time.

"Being with Vice President Harris and President Biden, just knowing that they're going to listen to me, knowing there's millions of people, not just in the U.S. but I guess all over the world, listening to me. And then to know what I'm singing about. And the historical (aspect) of that moment, that's where Martin Luther King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech. And I'm just thinking that, you know, being an African American…wow, I mean, this is the American dream. I'm here."

She collected herself.

"I'm singing for families that have lost their loved ones to COVID. You know, I'm singing so they know—even though that was a hard time and may still be a hard time—God's grace is sufficient. It's basically kind of like that inner peace where—you know what?—it's going to be okay. 'Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.' You know, can't dwell on that negative part. And that's how we talk to patients—don't get into the negative mindset, stay optimistic, and that energy is going to help heal. I felt like that could help heal families yesterday. Let's try and build people's spirit because medicine can only go so far."

When Biden appeared for the event on Tuesday evening, Key was the first person he spotted and acknowledged, she says.

"So that just made my day. He's like, 'Lori the nurse is here,'" she recalls. He also remarked on the "heavenly work" of nurses and thanked her for that. "I just didn't know what to say, I grabbed my chest. It was just an honor for him to just acknowledge me like that, and just to make eye contact. I'm like, the President of the United States just talked to me!"

Soon afterward, it was time to step to the microphone. Facing the Lincoln Memorial, Key closed her eyes and raised her sweet voice. "Oh, boy, what an experience," she says now. "It really happened. I'm back home now. It's like, wow, what?"

"It was such a great moment in my life that I'm going to cherish forever." The nurse who tried out for American Idol as a teen, is now grateful for the opportunity to perform for an audience of millions: "I never thought that this would happen to me." 

Key says she's not political. "I want peace," she says. As for Tuesday night, she adds, "I was very happy. I feel like the new year started yesterday."

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