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‘I Think It Will Inspire … People That Look Like Me’: Black Nurse Who Was First to Get COVID Vaccine Receives Highest Civilian Honor Alongside Denzel Washington and Simone Biles

Sandra Lindsay, a New York City nurse from Jamaica, will receive the highest civilian honor alongside some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment for being the first in the country to receive the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine.

“I was just overwhelmed with gratitude,” said Lindsay, who initially thought her invitation to the White House for the prestigious award was a prank call.

Lindsay, 54, a self-described visionary, never envisioned being invited to the White House alongside the likes of award-winning actor, director and producer, Denzel Washington, Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, and civil rights icon Fred Gray, among others, to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Never in my wildest dreams I thought that doing the right thing would have resulted in everything else that has happened,” said Lindsay.

Lindsay grew up in Jamaica and was raised by her grandparents. She says her path to becoming a nurse began as a child when she helped her ailing grandmother around with day-to-day tasks.

“My grandmother lived with chronic illnesses, so I was the one there helping her and was very happy to. She was functional and a schoolteacher, and so that was my evaluation that my interventions were working,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay says she always admired the nursing profession and worked hard to officially become one herself. “In Jamaica, nursing is a very prestigious career path and profession, I love seeing the nurses in their crisp white uniforms with the hat and I just always wanted to do that,” Lindsay said on becoming a nurse.

Lindsay moved to the United States in 1986, and later earned her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees to become a critical care nurse, all while raising her son as a single mother. “I didn’t come up on a scholarship with money in my pocket, ready to go to college, I had to work,” Lindsay said of her life journey. The ambitious Lindsay earned her doctorate degree in May 2021.  

Lindsay currently works as the director of patient care services in critical care at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York, and her willingness to become the first person in the nation to roll up her sleeve on Dec. 14, 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to get the Pfizer shot, is what sealed her invitation to the White House for the prestigious award.

Lindsay says she understood the gravity of the moment and the cloud of hesitation that held back many African-Americans from being among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine because of America’s history of using Black bodies in the name of medicine triggering concerns related to the Tuskegee syphilis study, among other examples.

“The vaccine was novel, so people wanted to do their research and they should, I followed and did mine before I made up my mind, so I didn’t jump into it blindly, so I think the concern and some of the pushback was valid because of the history and also because of current day disparities,” Lindsay said.

Since receiving the COVID-19 shot, Lindsay has been recognized for her courage on other occasions, but she trailblazing nurse says, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is on a different level.

“This is the highest civilian honor and I think it will inspire a lot of people definitely especially young people that look like me,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay says she hopes this moment can be used to inspire future generations of Black girls and boys to work hard to achieve their dreams and make a difference in similar fashion to her own life journey.

“Growing up besides my mom and my grandmother as my role models, you didn’t always see a lot of people who looked like me in prominent places, thankfully for this generation that has changed significantly,” Lindsay said.

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