Sandra Lindsay Got the First COVID-19 Vaccine in the US, It Was a Journey

Nurse Sandra Lindsay received the first COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. in New York City
Pool / Pool / Getty Images.

Key Takeaways

  • Sandra Lindsay is the director of nursing for critical care at Northwell Health in Queens, where she has worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • On December 14, Sandra Lindsay became the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States.
  • Since receiving the vaccine, Lindsay has worked to encourage others to do the same.

On December 14, 2020, the world watched as Sandra Lindsay became the first person in the United States to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Lindsay sat straight-faced as Dr. Michelle Chester administered the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, then clapped along with the crowd after receiving the dose. The moment became a defining before and after, filled with hope for a safer, healthier future after over nine months of fear and despair.

For Lindsay, it was a bright puncture through the dark she had become so accustomed to seeing. “Getting that shot, I said it’s like a shot of hope, where I finally see some light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “The healing is finally here.”

There are few who understand the toll of the pandemic as acutely as Lindsay. She works as the director of nursing for critical care at Northwell Health in Queens—the first COVID-19 epicenter in the United States. From March to May 2020, there were 203,000 reported COVID-19 cases in New York City. Queens had the highest number of the five boroughs, at 62,260.

“We got our first patient here in the first week of March, and by a week later, it was a different place,” says Lindsay. At first, she ran on adrenaline, but the gravity of the work began to catch up with her by the month’s end. “You’re not doing your normal 7.5, or even eight hour, nine hour days. You’re doing now 12 and 16 hour days, seven days a week.”

The physical and mental toll of being in Lindsay’s position at that time is almost incomprehensible. “I was personally very, very fearful of coming into work every day,” says Lindsay. “I was so afraid of getting sick and ending up in one of my ICU beds. I was afraid of getting sick because then I couldn’t be here for my staff, and I would feel incredibly guilty. I was afraid for my friends and family.”

Sandra Lindsay

Getting that shot, I said it’s like a shot of hope, where I finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. The healing is finally here.

— Sandra Lindsay

Lindsay recounts a particularly harrowing day when the fear and exhaustion overtook her. She left work “early” in her 12th hour on the job. The staff was about to open another ICU. She stopped at the landing where it would be and leaned against the wall, unable to move another step. 

“My nurse manager said, ‘You have to go home.’ And I said, ‘I can’t go home. We have to open up this unit,’ and he said, ‘We will take care of it. We know what to do. You got to go home. You don’t look good,’” recalls Lindsay.

Lindsay drove home where she lives alone and began diagnosing herself, terrified. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, do I have COVID? My body is hot.’ I just felt so worn out, and I remember just saying a prayer. I was so afraid to close my eyes. And I prayed, and I said, ‘Dear God, please don’t let me die in here alone.’ I closed my eyes and woke up in the morning, and I was so grateful.”

As a supervisor, Lindsay worked wherever her staff needed her. On top of helping patients, she organized supplies, transported blood to the blood bank, ensured everyone had personal protective equipment, and got her fellow nurses lunch, among other tasks.

“During the pandemic, it was, for me, all titles through the door,” she explains. 

Instead of having a patient assignment of three or four, Lindsay was responsible for all patients—a number she says was regularly hitting 150 at a time and remained unstable. “As patients pass away, unfortunately, we had to fill those beds. So it was this constant, grueling grind, which amplified the stress levels and burnout even more among nurses,” she says. 

Lindsay regularly helped with post-mortem care, especially with nurses who hadn’t worked with deceased patients in the past. “I remember one of my nurses. He’s young, out of nursing school, but he’s never done post-mortem care before. The unit he typically works at is a surgical unit. They see relatively stable patients,” she recalls. “I remember walking in, and he said, ‘Sandra, my patient just passed away, and I don’t know what to do,’ and I said, ‘Come, let’s do it together.’”

As a manager, Lindsay worked to staff surge areas with enough support while also ensuring conditions were safe for them to practice. The responsibility of preventing her nurses from getting sick became a heavy weight she carried. “It really wore me down. Even when I wasn’t here, when I went home, I was still thinking about it. My head was heavy every single day,” she says. “Some days, I didn’t even remember the drive home.”

On top of her own despair, Lindsay also witnessed the pandemic’s mental toll on her coworkers. While she lives alone, many of her colleagues moved out of their homes to avoid infecting their family members. “People felt isolated and just really sad and depressed, and hopeless. As we didn’t know when this was going to end, we couldn’t see any end in sight,” she says. “Every day was just more of the same.”

How It Felt Becoming the First Person in the U.S. to Get the Vaccine

Then, one day, finally, it wasn’t. The world watched a vaccine dose change Lindsay’s life in a matter of seconds, and, as a result, theirs began to change along with her.

“I felt a huge sigh of relief that I had some protection now going into work,” she says. 

While Lindsay had volunteered to be among the initial group at work to get the vaccine, she had no idea that her vaccination would be the first country-wide. A large spotlight found her in a matter of hours. Since that December day, she has used her new platform to encourage others to follow in her footsteps.

“I’ve been sharing my experience and speaking out to people, particularly people of color, who were heavily affected, and are most mistrustful of the vaccine,” says Lindsay.

A March 2021 report from The COVID States Project found that, at the time, vaccine hesitancy was higher in Hispanic people at 37%, African Americans at 36%, and Asian Americans at 33%, compared to white people at 29%. This can be, in part, attributed to the continual systemic racism which exists in health care.

More recently, a May 2021 report from KFF showed that in most states Black and Hispanic people have received a smaller share of vaccines compared to their total population in most states. These numbers are attributed to both hesitancy and less access to vaccines. As of April 2021, Black people are 1.9 times as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. The discrepancy is even higher for Hispanic and Latino people at 2.3 times as likely.

A separate source of frustration for Lindsay comes from COVID-19 conspiracy theories. “When we still hear people say that this is not real and this is all made up, it really hurts us as healthcare workers who have lived it and still going through it to hear people say that,” she says. 

In the five months since Lindsay received the vaccine, about 50% of people in the U.S. have received at least one dose, and about 38% of people are fully vaccinated. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of engagements. But for me, it’s well worth it getting the word out and trying to get more people vaccinated so that we can get out of this predicament,” she adds.

What Lindsay Hopes Is Done to Help Healthcare Workers

Lindsay’s employer has taken steps such as offering a transcendental meditation course and a stress relief program. She credits practicing transcendental meditation twice a day as a great source of help while she continues to navigate the pandemic.

While her employer has made substantial efforts, Lindsay’s concern and care for healthcare workers extend far beyond the confines of her workplace. Lindsay wants each and every frontline worker to have access to healing initiatives.

“I’m hoping at a federal level, state level, and organizational level that there are policies put in place that mandate organizations to provide these programs,” she says. “Provide trained professionals to help nurses who are going to be dealing with years perhaps of sadness, feelings of hopelessness, depression.” She mentions the importance of integrating spaces at work for staff to decompress, such as the Chapel and meditation room her medical center offers.

Sandra Lindsay

I was so afraid to close my eyes. And I prayed, and I said, ‘Dear God, please don’t let me die in here alone.’ I closed my eyes and woke up in the morning, and I was so grateful.

— Sandra Lindsay

After working very extended hours, Lindsay is eager to see a shift towards a greater work-life balance for employees. She emphasizes that employees shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for having to leave work or taking vacation time.

Then there are the financial aspects Lindsay hopes policymakers consider. Even before the pandemic, she recalls a lot of healthcare workers were taking on more than one job or extra hours to pay back loans or make ends meet.

“I think that is something the government should look at, giving back to healthcare workers a loan forgiveness program so that they won't have to deal with the stress of trying to work to pay back student loans,” says Lindsay. “They should not have that stress, plus additional stress that they may be going through.”

What This Means For You

Though COVID-19 cases have decreased, Lindsay emphasizes that nurses like herself are still in the thick of things. She hopes her fellow healthcare workers stay aware of signs of burnout and take care of themselves.

As a society, she stresses the need to work on removing stigmas attached to getting help. “If we don’t help our healthcare workers to get over this and to heal and to make life a little less stressful for them, and reward their heroic efforts, this will affect our patient population,” says Lindsay. “When people are under stress and burnout, they can’t provide quality care that patients need. And so we don’t want the care and safety and quality care for patients to suffer. So we’re going to have to address it.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
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  1. Lazer D, Ognyanova K, Baum M, et al. The COVID States Project #43: COVID-19 vaccine rates and attitudes among Americans. Open Science Framework.

  2. Kaiser Family Foundation. Latest Data on COVID-19 Vaccinations Race/Ethnicity.