No one told Sandra Lindsay that her picture was going to wind up on the front page of the New York Times. But that’s exactly what happened on 15th December, the day after she became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, after it was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. “I was on the front page of just about every major newspaper around the world,” she says.
In fact, Lindsay, the director of nursing for critical care at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center, didn’t even know she'd been the first person to receive the shot, until New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced it at a press conference later that day. All she knew was that she couldn’t wait to get the life-saving vaccine.
Lindsay had spent most of 2020 working in a critical-care unit, caring for COVID-19 patients, and she had seen first-hand how deadly the virus could be. So she decided to use the “unexpected and overwhelming” attention she was getting as an opportunity to use her voice to “educate, clarify, and inspire others” to get vaccinated too.
Here, Lindsay opens up about what it was like to be celebrated as the first person in the US to receive an approved vaccine — and what she wants people to know about her experience working on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Refinery29: How did you feel about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine? Had you been looking forward to it? Were you nervous about it?
Sandra Lindsay, RN: "My friends and family know that every day leading up to having the vaccine, I would say: ‘I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait for the vaccine.’ That was my song."
How did you find out you’d be getting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine?
“On 13th December, my chief nursing officer reached out to me to inquire if I was still interested in the vaccine, because it was not only coming to New York, but specifically our hospital. I said, ‘Absolutely I’m interested.’ [The chief nursing officer] said, ‘Okay, tomorrow morning, you’ll get it.’ It was a fast turnaround. In the morning, coming to work, I texted my son and said, ‘I’m getting the vaccine today.’ He asked me if I was sure I’d want to get it so soon, and I said yes. And off I went.”
Did you know you’d be the first person in America to get the vaccine?
“No, I didn't know I was going to be the first in New York State — never mind in the country. I knew I’d be among the first in Long Island Jewish Medical Center, but didn’t know beyond that. I found out what had happened when Governor Cuomo mentioned it. Even then, it really didn’t hit me right away.”
Were you hesitant to share your experience publicly?
“I really don’t like the spotlight, but I’m in it. Speaking about [getting the vaccine] and what it meant to me seemed natural. I believe in leading by example, and not asking people to do anything that I wouldn’t do. I got the vaccine [because] as a nurse, I had a professional responsibility to restore public health and prevent suffering and death. And I had a personal responsibility to protect myself, and the people around me.”
Do you think being on the front-lines throughout the pandemic made you more open to receiving the vaccine?
“In March, April, and part of May, we cared for over 150 patients with COVID-19 daily in the intensive care unit. It was physically and mentally exhausting. After seeing the pain and suffering — the death in patients younger than me, in my age group, and older than me — I saw that it could happen to anyone; my family, my friends, or myself could potentially end up in that hospital bed, too. I also knew that in a crisis of this magnitude, only vaccination could help us, beyond preventative measures such as the masks and the social distancing.
“Before I got [the vaccine], every day, I’d walk into work and there was an element of fear. Because you don’t know what you’re getting into. You fear for yourself and your staff. We weren’t pessimistic — but there were feelings of helplessness because you couldn’t always help the patients or your staff. But after getting my first shot of the vaccine, there was a feeling of relief. It felt like a burden lifted off my shoulders. I was hopeful that we were going to be able to get through this. The help we needed was here.”
What would you say to people who are still hesitant to receive the vaccine?
“I’ve been using my platform to especially educate minorities, people of colour, and people who are hesitant to take the vaccine because of history. I don’t want to dismiss their fears and hesitancy because some of it is based on disparities in health care that we still experience today among minority populations. I understand that and I acknowledge it as real. And for those who feel that way, I encourage them to look at the advancements we’ve made and the systems that have been put in place to prevent harmful practices from happening. And to know, this time around, it’s different because the whole world has been affected, so the whole world is watching.
“The only way we’re going to help people work through the distrust is to listen, educate, and debunk conspiracy theories and misconceptions. We also need to provide opportunities to access the vaccine. It’s one thing to go out and educate, but if people don’t have access, that adds another layer of distrust.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for anyone who's wary of the vaccine?
“I’d suggest people get curious, ask the right questions, go back in history and see how vaccinations have preserved human life over the years. I encourage people to trust science, because science really affects every part of our lives, from when we wake up in the morning to when we go to bed at night. It starts with your alarm clock.”
How did you feel after you received the vaccine?
“I didn’t feel any adverse effects from the vaccine. I had mild soreness at the site of the injection afterwards, about a one on a scale of one to 10. No headache, fever, or fatigue. After getting my second shot [on January 4], I was bracing myself physically and mentally, because the participants in the Pfizer study reported feeling headaches and fatigue more so after the second shot than the first. I thought I’d feel bad after the second — even though I knew any effects would pale in comparison to gasping for air and feeling the other effects of COVID-19. But after the second shot, I got a jolt of energy. It might have been psychological, but the weight on my shoulders felt even lighter. The following day, I had so much energy, I went on a long run to the town dock to watch the sunset. I felt good. I felt grateful.”
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.