Meet Sandra Lindsay is the First Person Vaccinated For COVID-19 in the U.S.

The world was watching, and she didn’t realize it.

A rapid-firing of camera shutters coupled with throngs of eager reporters stunned Sandra Lindsay as she walked into a room to receive the newly approved Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19. The critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York, rolled up her sleeve and, unbeknownst to her, became the first in the United States to receive the life-saving inoculation.

Lindsay, perhaps the most photographed person in the world at this time, will now have the very vaccine vial and scrubs she wore that momentous moment enshrined in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Coverage of the Dec. 14 moment was carried by media outlets across the nation and world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, NPR, and more. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was even there on screen, via livestream. Lindsay, shocked by the massive attention, graciously composed herself to answer the first question on everyone’s mind: How do you feel?

“I feel hopeful, relieved,” the dedicated medical professional said. “I feel like healing is coming. I hope this marks the beginning to the end of a very painful time in our history.”

Before the day was over outlets like CNN were reaching out to Lindsay’s mother for a reaction. Her brother, also a health care worker lined up to receive the vaccine, broke the news to Lindsay that her face was plastered everywhere.

“I just went in to get this shot because I was sick and tired of being afraid and seeing all of this death and suffering,” she told UMOJA Magazine. “We need to put an end to this, and I need to play my part. … I never knew I would be the first in New York State, never mind the first in the United States.”

Lindsay, 52, instantly became a global sensation, making the rounds on national morning news and talk shows. She thought there would be at least local coverage, but nothing on this scale, she laughed. Yet making history was not her motive in volunteering to receive the coronavirus vaccine. Lindsay just wanted to do what was right, set an example for nurses she works side-by-side daily, and stop this cruel and reckless pandemic in its tracks.

Exactly 21 days after receiving her first injection, Lindsay, was inoculated with the all-important second shot to lock in immunity against coronavirus disease. She did so with confidence, relying on science and the information she studied.

“I am feeling great, not so fearful anymore,” Lindsay said. “I know COVID is still around so there’s still an element of fear, but not like it was before.”

Medical Apartheid

Trust is critical to health, said Lindsay, who completes her Doctor of Health Sciences degree, with a concentration in Global Health and Leadership and Organizational Behavior, on March 13.

Lindsay agreed to an interview with UMOJA Magazine to appeal directly to men and women of color who are skeptical of vaccinations in general, adding she wanted everyone to know that the coronavirus vaccine is critical in keeping family, friends and neighbors safe.

She mentioned the legacy of the Tuskegee study, which began in 1932 and withheld treatment from Black men with syphilis to analyze the effects. She’s aware of the story of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cancer, but whose blood was used for revolutionary modern medicine. And she knows the sordid history of how enslaved Black women were experimented on without anesthesia, all in the name of reproductive health research.

Today, COVID-19 is crushing Black communities. Black Americans are infected with COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white Americans. The report, based on data from Johns Hopkins University, also shows Black Americans are twice as likely to die from the virus.

The mistrust is understood, Lindsay said. But as a community and as a country we are running short on time to convince everyone that a vaccine is both safe and effective.

“The Black community may look at me and say I am just one person,” said Lindsay. “They may say why should we trust this one (Black) person getting vaccinated? I know my act alone is not enough to erase centuries of harm and pain that has been inflicted on our community. But I encourage you to get informed by experts in the field before making a decision about whether or not to get the COVID vaccine.

“Ask questions yourself. Don’t listen to social media and conspiracy theories. Take your health into your own hands, because too many of us have died and we have to figure out how to keep this from happening to us again in future,” she sincerely added.

Center of the Epicenter

Lindsay knew early on in life that she wanted to be a nurse. While growing up in Jamaica she became the primary caregiver for her grandmother who had hypertension and diabetes. Lindsay immigrated to the United States 30 years ago with her family. After moving to New York, she went on to earn her master’s degree and rose through the ranks until she became the director of critical care nursing at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in 2016. 

Still, Lindsay admits nothing quite prepared her for the mounting pain and suffering COVID presents.  It put her face-to-face with the grisly side of the pandemic and how it mercilessly robs people of their lives: Husbands and their wives. Young adults just beginning to live their lives. And aging parents of colleagues so swamped with double shifts to make time to grieve.

It takes a mental and physical commitment to work in health care. On top of that, health care workers must contend with the disbelieving public and crackpot theories ꟷ convinced that the coronavirus and its death toll are a mere hoax. It has proved all too much for the medical professionals.

“People do not appreciate how incredibly difficult this is on health care workers physically and mentally,” Lindsay said. “We are working so hard to save lives. We’re in the business of saving lives.

“Some days, when we can’t save a life or when the death toll is so much, we can’t even spend time to honor that person who passed away, we have to keep going on to the next one, and the next and the next. It causes deep moral distress for us,” she added.

During the pandemic’s infancy, Lindsay led a team of hundreds of critical care nurses as the hospital coped with waves of extremely ill COVID-19 patients. Between March and May, the hospital opened six new intensive care units, expanding its intensive care capacity to about 150 patients at a time, more than triple its usual number.

Meanwhile, the line outside of the hospital’s morgue grew.

“All across New York City you’d see trucks that were set up as morgues because no hospital has that capacity to hold bodies,” Lindsay explained. “No hospital is built for that.”

With optimism in her soul and a healthy one-year-old grandson to dot on, Lindsay believes as a nation we can beat this.