Sandra Lindsay knew the minute she heard about COVID-19 vaccines that she wanted to be first in line to get one.
Lindsay, a New York City nurse, got her wish. She became the first person in the US vaccinated against COVID-19 outside of clinical trials on Monday.
Lindsay has been a critical care nurse for more than 26 years. She currently works as the director for critical care at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York, managing all intensive care units at the hospital.
Lindsay did not know she would be the first person to get vaccinated until Monday, but said she wanted to "lead by example" and signal to Americans that they can put an end to the pandemic.
"As a minority, I wanted to instill confidence in my people that look like me to say that it is safe, be guided by science, don't be afraid," Lindsay said.
In an interview with Business Insider, Lindsay described what it means for a nurse to receive the first COVID-19 vaccine, and what it was like to work in Queens, an epicenter of the outbreak, back in March. Lindsay also offers her advice on why those who may be on the fence should trust the vaccine, and how she felt when she received it.
Questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity
Allana Akhtar: What inspired you to become a nurse and go into healthcare?
Sandra Lindsay: I grew up in Jamaica with my grandmother being my caretaker. She had some health issues and so I would help her in terms of administering her medications. I knew back then that I wanted to be a nurse. And so when I migrated here, I just pursued my dream.
AA: When did you migrate?
SL: I migrated here in 1986.
AA: What was your experience like as a nurse during the pandemic?
Oh, it was tiring. It was dark. It was painful to see the suffering. We just worked long hours trying to save lives. As the director, I led a team of nurses [and] support staff, and just working alongside them, seeing the pain and the courage and the fear in their eyes as they go about their daily duties was very hard for me.
What was the biggest challenge for you during the height of the pandemic and in New York City at your hospital?
Keeping up with the volume and also experiencing all the suffering and the death that was happening around me and also seeing how hard staff was working to save lives.
What was your experience in terms of hearing about the vaccine?
The minute I heard about the vaccine, just watching the news and heard that Pfizer and other companies were working diligently to create a vaccine, I said to my friends and family that I would be first in line to take it. I was just done seeing all the suffering and the pain and know that this is what we need to put an end to this pandemic. It was just important for me to take it.
So I said openly to everyone, including my leaders in my hospital, that I would volunteer to take it. I didn't want to wait. I wanted to lead by example. As a minority, I wanted to instill confidence in my people that look like me, to say that it is safe, be guided by science, don't be afraid.
How did you get a vaccine appointment?
Being that I am at high risk because of the area I work in, in critical care, we're the top tier prioritized group. Everyone knew that I wanted to take the vaccine, I had no hesitation to take it, so it was scheduled fairly quickly.
Did you know you were going to be the first person in New York to get the vaccine?
I had no idea until today that I was the first person in the country to get the vaccine.
How did you feel when you knew you were going to be the first person?
I was excited, but mostly for what it means, what it signifies. It signifies hope, it signifies relief, it signifies healing, it signifies the beginning of the end of a very dark time for us. So it was exciting for me.
How did it feel to get the vaccine? Was there any pain?
It didn't feel any different from when I got the flu vaccine two months ago, as a matter of fact, I didn't even know it was finished. You notice on camera, I didn't move. It was a little pinch.
I still don't have pain in my arm, several hours later.
Was that in line with your expectations?
I didn't know what to expect, but again, I was not fearful. I'm more fearful of getting COVID-19 and potentially spreading it to people than I am of taking the vaccine.
What does it mean to you that Queens was the first place to vaccinate healthcare workers, since it was the epicenter of the virus back in March, April?
I think it's monumental that Queens was hit so heavily and then this is the first place that we administered the first vaccine. I think that's fantastic. And it, you know, it makes me feel very proud to be a healthcare worker and also that our efforts have been recognized.
What does it mean to you that a nurse was the first person to get vaccinated?
I am just super proud to represent nursing and represent all the nurses all across the country, all across the world, that have been working tirelessly to save lives. It's a proud moment for me to be a nurse.
What does it mean to you to be a minority woman, a Black woman, and an immigrant to get the vaccine?
I'm grateful to have the opportunity. I hope everyone around the world has this same opportunity. And I hope that in my community, the minority community, people won't be discouraged. We need everyone to take the vaccine. We need to eradicate the pandemic. And this is one of the only ways that we will get rid of COVID-19 and to get back to some degree of normalcy.
Did you talk to your family after getting the vaccine and what was their response?
They're very proud of me. They weren't surprised that now that the vaccine is here, I would have volunteered to get it first. They're extremely proud of me.
What are you most looking forward to once we reach herd immunity?
To embrace whatever the new normal is in my life. I've just been extremely grateful to be alive, to be working alongside my team on the frontlines for so many months taking care of COVID patients. I am grateful to be healthy, never [to have] got COVID-19.
Why should people trust the vaccine?
They should trust the vaccine because it's guided by science. They should ask questions, consult their healthcare provider, have their list of questions that they want to ask so they feel comfortable, and just listen to the experts.
How do you see the next few months playing out as more people start to get vaccinated?
I hope that we will see less death. I hope that we will, in the coming months, restore public health and safety.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
I just want to really give a huge thanks to everyone I work with, my Northwell family, my LIJ family, my critical care family, and to everyone who supported us during the peak of the pandemic, all of the travel nurses who left their families all across the country, gave up their jobs to come and help us. I am tremendously grateful to all of them.