Historic jab: Meet Sandra Lindsay, the first COVID-19 vaccine recipient in the U.S.
Sandra Lindsay is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Sandra Lindsay is many things to many people: mother, grandmother, proud native Jamaican, critical-care nurse, boss, recent Ph.D. recipient.
But to the wider world, she is best known for rolling up her left sleeve. And for that, she's been named USA TODAY's Women of the Year honoree from New York.
On Dec. 14, 2020, Sandra Lindsay, who had rolled up her sleeves plenty to handle wave after coronavirus wave, became the first person in America to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
To date, more than 200 million Americans have followed her example.
That first jab was the start of a very public role for Lindsay, who had, until then, always prided herself on keeping the lowest of profiles.
That changed, for good and for bad, with that first vaccination.
Yes, she became public face of the vaccine that promised to turn the tide on the pandemic, a source of great pride for Lindsay, a fervent proponent of the vaccine. But she was also pilloried by some on social media, portrayed as a guinea pig who let the government experiment on her with a vaccine that had been rushed into production.
In fact, Lindsay said, she knew precisely what she was getting into, and she welcomed the role.
"I was surprised because this is not the first time we've had vaccines," Lindsay said. "I was just surprised and disappointed with how it became politicized and not seen as we're in a health crisis and this could potentially save millions of lives."
Born in Clarendon Parish in Jamaica, she always dreamed of being a nurse.
"I grew up with my grandparents and my grandmother had some chronic illnesses, and I would take care of her," she said. "And I enjoyed taking care of her."
Nurses in Jamaica were respected, their profession desirable. Plus, they wore crisp, white uniforms and hats.
"I wanted to be that person," Lindsay said.
Instead, she migrated to New York in 1986, and became a critical-care nurse, wearing scrubs. She landed at Long Island Jewish Medical Center as a critical-care nurse and director of patient care services.
Long Island Jewish, part of the Northwell Health System, is in New Hyde Park, on Long Island, on the border with Queens. And Queens was among the hardest hit areas of hard-hit New York. On Dec. 13, 2020, her supervisor said the vaccine would be given out at Northwell the next day.
"I was like 'Give it to me. Give it to me now,'" she said. "No second thoughts. No shivers, no fear. I remember texting my son and saying, 'I'm going to get the vaccine today.'"
She then reached out to her brother, who is also in health care, in Maryland. When she broke the news, that Northwell had the vaccine: "He said, 'Cool. I can't wait to get mine.'"
But there are people who waited to get vaccinated, who are still waiting. She sees them, in the hospital.
"We continue to see unvaccinated people being hospitalized and in poor condition, they they're very sick. They're younger than the first wave and we've had to just use a lot of resources. We're trying to save people and some of it works, sometimes it doesn't work, and then families get upset that we didn't do enough. And staff is burned out, because they're saying: 'Well, this could have been prevented,' and they're heartbroken."
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Who paved the way for you?
Personally in my life, two strong women – my grandmother, Harriet Lindsay, and my mother, Hazel Morgan – instilled in me the values of hard work, humility, professionalism, how to carry myself as a lady, education, pride in what I do. And patience and respect.
Do you feel you’ve paved the way for others?
I hope that I serve as an inspiration to young women all across the world, both those who look like me in terms of my color and my heritage, and those who don't. I know growing up in Jamaica, beyond my mother and my grandmother, there weren't enough women in prominent places that looked like me. There weren't women on magazine covers that looked me. So I hope that I am among the women who young ladies now can look up to and say, 'I aspire to be like her one day.'
Is being the first American vaccinated for COVID-19 your proudest moment?
Absolutely. Unexpected, but I embraced it and honored to have this platform and to inspire, to educate and to represent the United States, which has given me so many opportunities since I migrated here and also my country of birth, Jamaica.
What is your definition of courage?
Courage is being willing to stand up for what you believe in, stand up for what is right and leading by example.
Is there a guiding principle or mantra you tell yourself?
When people ask 'Why me?' I ask 'Why not me?' And from a woman's perspective, my saying is that I am enough. I'm perfectly imperfect and happy with the way I am, every flaw and everything, and I am enough.
How do you overcome adversity?
I wake up every morning with a prayer of gratefulness, first to open my eyes. Then I ask God to give me strength and guide my path as I take on whatever he throws at me, because I am enough to handle it and why not me? I also meditate through transcendental meditation. That's something I've learned during the peak of the pandemic, where my head felt like it was going to explode.
So the meditation helps center you. What else has helped you?
I love walking around my neighborhood, in Port Washington, on Long Island, and seeing people. Long walks, long runs. It's a nice neighborhood and, depending on the time of day, people kind of walk together. So you might know who you're going to see on the walk. I may not know their names, but people are present and (say), 'How are you today? And you know, it just makes a difference.
What advice would you give your younger self?
That’s a tough one. I guess to share more of myself. I’ve enjoyed every rung of the ladder, even my educational accomplishments. I took the time, step by step, but I've enjoyed that journey and I wouldn't go any faster. I guess I'm always a mystery to people. I don't know why. But that's the only thing I would change: to share more of myself.
Reach Peter D. Kramer, a 33-year staffer, at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Meet Sandra Lindsay, the first person in U.S. to get the COVID vaccine