This week, President Joseph R. Biden awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom — to 17 worthy recipients. Among them will be Sandra Lindsay, the nurse who was the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials.
Why did she get the award?
In December of 2020, the American public watched news feeds of refrigerated trucks carrying the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine to hospitals and pharmacies around the country. The trucks signaled a remarkable breakthrough in medical science and promised an end to the nightmare that the pandemic had created.
Among those who had eagerly awaited the vaccine was Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at New York’s Northwell Health. Dr. Lindsay had registered for the shot along with several colleagues, and she told National Public Radio’s Allison Aubrey that when she rolled up her sleeve she’d had no idea that she’d be the first in the nation to receive it — or that her injection would be televised and broadcast around the world. The Jamaican immigrant, director of critical care nursing at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, certainly did not expect the acclaim or honors that would follow. She just wanted the protection that the vaccination promised, and to lead by example. She said the goal was “Not to be the first one to take the vaccine, but to inspire people who look like me, who are skeptical in general about taking vaccines.”
Since that time she has become a powerful advocate for health care workers receiving the mental health support they so desperately need and deserve, and a potent example and supporter of the power of vaccination.
Who is Sandra Lindsay?
Sandra Lindsay’s story would be noteworthy without the distinction of being a vaccine pioneer. As a child in Jamaica she helped care for her grandmother, who though her primary caregiver, suffered with diabetes and hypertension. This experience inspired her lifelong desire to be a nurse, and when she immigrated to the U.S. three decades ago, she earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing by attending community college and then St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. She earned her Master’s degree at Lehman College in the Bronx. Repeated promotions took her from her first role, at Lenox Hill Hospital, as an oncology nurse, to her current role of Director of Patient Care Services, Critical Care. She also earned her MBA at Hofstra University and is a Doctor of Health Sciences following her studies at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences.
What does it mean that she got the award?
According to a statement from the White House, “the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.” Ms. Lindsay’s contribution to American society was critical, as the vaccine was being met with skepticism, particularly by people of color. In raising her hand to be the first and in speaking of the relief and hope that the vaccine bestowed, she paved the way for millions of others to move forward and protect themselves and their communities by getting vaccinated.
What does Sandra Lindsay do as a nurse?
At the time that Sandra Lindsay was vaccinated, more than 35,000 New Yorkers and 300,000 Americans had lost their lives to the virus. The hospital where she worked opened six new intensive care units, tripling capacity to 150 patients at a time. Asked about her experience she said, “Some days, I don’t know how I got through it. Some days I didn’t know how I got home, but I knew I had to rest and get ready to come back and do it again. Because I did not want to leave my team to do it alone.”
Her hospital was not alone in having faced — and continuing to face — challenges. Though the majority of nurses in the United States have been protected against the worst impact of the virus through voluntary or mandatory vaccination, the pandemic has significantly impacted nurses’ emotional health, and pandemic burnout has led to concerning attrition among staff. Today Sandra Lindsay’s advocacy has gone beyond the vaccination goal, and much of her time is spent advocating on behalf of supporting nurses’ mental health.
What has she done since she got the shot heard around America?
Since her unexpected time in the spotlight, Sandra Lindsay has used the attention she has received to work on behalf of healthcare workers suffering trauma and burnout. She was recently invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival. She has received numerous accolades and awards, including:
- USA Today Woman of the Year 2022
- U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) American by Choice Recognition (2021)
- Robert Nesta Marley Humanitarian Award (2021)
- President Award (American Nurses Association, 2021)
- Leader of the Year 2022 Herbert Lehman College
- Alumni Achievement Award – Herbert Lehman College 2022
- Commencement Speaker Herbert Lehman College 2022
- Leadership Award – Little Flower of New York (2022)
- Trailblazer Award – Glenmuir High School (2021)
While Sandra Lindsay’s fame came as a result of receiving an injection, she has continued to make valuable contributions to American society through the example of her remarkable empathy. In offering advice on persuading hesitant friends or family members to get vaccinated, she stresses the importance of acting with love rather than by trying to use shame. She says that by showing the reluctant individual that you’re acting out of concern for others rather than seeking control, you can shift the tone and impact of the conversation. “Saying ‘you can’t come here’ is not the answer,” she says. Instead, “let them know you really want to spend time with them.” Her compassionate approach and leadership have made her a worthy recipient of this incredible honor.
- “‘I Trust Science,’ Says Nurse Who Is First to Get Vaccine in U.S.” nytimes.com. Accessed July 6, 2022.
- “COVID-19 Vaccines and People of Color.” hopkinsmedicine.org. Accessed July 6, 2022.
- “President Biden Announces Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” whitehouse.gov. Accessed July 6, 2022.
- “Sandra Lindsay got the first U.S. COVID jab. Here’s her secret to motivate others.” npr.org. Accessed July 6, 2022.
- “The first public Covid-19 vaccines reach all states as the US death toll tops 300,000.” cnn.com. Accessed July 6, 2022.
- “The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines — and what it means for other diseases.” nature.com. Accessed July 6, 2022.
- “Vaccine Transport Leans on Tight Network of Refrigerated-Truck Operators.” wsj.com. Accessed July 6, 2022.