But what made Lindsay an especially poignant choice, her brother said, was that she had dreamed her whole life — since a 6-year-old in their home country of Jamaica — of finding a way to help others.
“This is the whole reason she became a nurse, especially growing up in a third-world country like we did. She’s so passionate about people’s health,” said her brother, Garfield Lindsay. “To be able to be an example like this for getting the vaccine, it’s so meaningful.”
In an interview shortly after the vaccination, Lindsay said she knew when she woke up Monday morning she would be getting the shot but had no idea she would be the first person in America to do so since the vaccine’s approval this weekend, according to Northwell Health, the New York-area medical system where Lindsay works. It said she was the first American to receive the vaccine.
Northwell, which operates 23 hospitals, is prioritizing its medical staff based on a variety of factors, including their jobs.
As an intensive care unit director at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Lindsay, 52, oversees five units of critical-care nurses who have been caring for covid-19 patients since the worst weeks in New York this spring.
Amid that work, Lindsay lost an aunt and an uncle to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We were scared,” she said of the early days of the pandemic at her hospital in Queens. “I had to remain numb sometimes and push forward.”
Her staff worked 16-hour days, even when — at the end of their shift — pain and hurt were visible in their eyes, she said.
Her brother, who was also treating coronavirus patients as a respiratory therapist in Maryland, said there were difficult nights when all they could do was encourage each other to keep going.
“It’s not just managing other nurses and the stress. She has dealt with so many deaths,” he said. “I reminded her how strong she is, how she prepared for this. That it’s important not to break down because there are others looking and counting on her.”
Among health-care workers, critical-care nurses like Lindsay have been borne some of the heaviest burdens of this pandemic. They take care of the patients who are sickest in the intensive care unit, monitoring them around-the-clock.
With many families unable to get to patients in their last minutes, ICU nurses have often been the ones holding their hand as they die, and the ones helping grieving families through those final days.
“It takes a huge emotional toll on any human being. There are days lately when you have four to five patients dying on a single shift,” said Connie Barden, chief clinical officer at the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. “And it’s getting even harder now with cases going up everywhere.”
Lindsay and her brother were raised in Jamaica by their grandparents. Those seeking help at hospitals in Jamaica would sometimes face long lines, Garfield Lindsay said, and lifesaving drugs were not always available.
As a little girl, Sandra Lindsay dreamed of being a nurse as a way to help others. Becoming health-care workers was a tangible way for the siblings to make a difference.
Lindsay moved to the United States as a young adult and enrolled in a nursing program. Her older brother soon followed suit and was persuaded by her to study respiratory therapy at the same college in New York.
She worked her way up — one of a growing number of Jamaican nurses in New York’s hospitals — from student trainee to staff nurse, assistant manager and finally director of ICU nurses.
It was at the conference room of her hospital that Lindsay received what was probably the first shot in the massive vaccination effort unfolding across the country.
The video feed of her shot was broadcast into a news conference held by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). The needle that went into her arm contained genetic instructions that would prime her cells to recognize and defend against the coronavirus.
“This is the weapon that will end the war,” Cuomo said shortly after her shot.
“First Vaccine Administered. Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!” President Trump tweeted.
She felt a sense of pride in receiving the vaccine, but said, “I didn’t expect all of this — that I would be all over TV and social media. It’s not about the attention for me, it’s about getting the message out.”
Lindsay said it was important for her as a Black woman to take the vaccine as a message to those who distrust the medical system because of historical malfeasance or because they have suffered medical racism.
“Unfortunately, due to history, my population — minorities, people that look like me — are hesitant to take vaccines,” she said. She wants to send a message that science can be trusted.
The vaccinations won’t work, she pointed out, “if only some people take the vaccines.”
She hopes the jab to her upper left arm will also be an inspiration to the other nurses she works with. Some health-care workers have expressed worries about getting vaccinated.
About an hour after the shot, sitting in the conference room where she received the injection, she said she felt no pain or discomfort.
“The vaccine is new to my body. I suspect that as my immune system starts to unpack and decode what just happened, I will feel something,” Lindsay said. She plans to be at work Tuesday.
“It’s safe to take it. People have heard about the side effects — fever, arm pain — but I don’t suspect that it will be any different from the annual flu vaccine,” she said. “Even if there is a little soreness, or a lot of soreness, it’s still better than the alternative.”
She thought back to the little girl she once was, talking of one day helping others as a nurse.
“My grandmother’s just smiling right now,” she said. “She had no idea that I would pursue my dreams.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.