'I'll never forget': ICU nurse who received one of the 1st U.S. vaccine doses reflects on COVID anniversary

Dylan Stableford
·Senior Writer
·5-min read

On March 11, 2020, Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, had just a handful of coronavirus patients in her ICU. Four days later, it was inundated.

Lindsay, who later became one of the first people in the United States to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, recently spoke to Yahoo News about her experiences over the past year.

The interview was part of an oral history of March 11, 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic — and the day the virus became “real” for many Americans.

Here is Lindsay’s account, in her own words, which has been slightly condensed for clarity.

We are located in Queens, which is a predominantly minority community. During that first week of March, we got one patient in my ICU. So we have that patient isolated. And we were very meticulous, you know, with, going in and out of the room, ensuring that we did not cause any spread of anything. My staff was wearing proper PPE. We had people there just to help staff don their PPE to make sure people were well protected and there wouldn't be any cross-contamination. We took all measures to make sure that we didn't contribute at any time to a spread outbreak. So that was kind of the first week, before the 11th.

On the 13th, Friday the 13th, I'll never forget, I had a late evening meeting with my team, because we were starting to see our volume rise. And we knew that our traditional use of four ICUs would not be able to suffice. So we had identified another area that was being prepped now for moving patients from one area to that area. We were basically expanding to our fifth.

Sandra Lindsay reacts after receiving a dose of the coronavirus vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton/AFP via Getty Images)
Sandra Lindsay reacts after receiving a dose of the coronavirus vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. (Photo by Shannon Stapleton/AFP via Getty Images)

Of course, we were scared. We were scared. My staff was scared because we knew it was only a matter of time before it came to us.

We huddled on a plan and the unit was ready, so we proceeded to open it on Saturday. I left here probably after 6 or 7 that evening. And by Monday morning, when I came back, it was like the floodgates were open. I did not know where so many patients came from.

So March, April, May — it just seems like one long dream, bad dream, that wouldn't end. Every day was more of the same. Exhausted physically and mentally. The volume. Seeing what the nurses were going through. Trying to figure out, as the director, like, where we gonna put all these people? Where are we going to move to next? Staffing, making sure people had what they needed to be safe. Making sure people are getting their breaks, or just some time to breathe outside of the personal protective equipment. Those were some of the responsibilities and some of the things that kept me up at night. It was just gruesome every single day. It was hard to watch people suffering and dying. Just hard to watch the staff working so hard and looking fearful as they were courageously doing their job. It was hard for me to stop thinking about everything, even, you know, when I went home. I was constantly thinking. My head just felt huge. Like I had so much information and so much weight on my shoulders every single day.

In December, Lindsay became the first New Yorker, and possibly the first American, to receive an authorized coronavirus vaccine. She got an ovation from health officials and others who gathered to watch the injection.

From the minute that needle pierced my flesh, I started to feel hopeful. The weight was lifted off my shoulders. I could not believe that in less than a year we had a vaccine, and that I was actually getting it.

Everyone knew that I was a fierce advocate for vaccination before then. And I would openly say that as soon as the vaccine arrives, can I be the first in line? I'm a woman and I'm a Black woman taking this vaccine. How powerful is that? Because I know my Black community was so disproportionately affected and are the ones with the greatest hesitancy about vaccines. This was a powerful platform.

Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is given a shot of the coronavirus vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, Dec.14, 2020. (Mark Lennihan/Pool via Reuters)
Nurse Sandra Lindsay is given a shot of the coronavirus vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester on Dec.14, 2020. (Mark Lennihan/Pool via Reuters)

She has since used that platform to instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe while continuing to work at the ICU.

Personally, I didn't take any time off because I kept thinking, you know, being optimistic, things are gonna get better. And I could actually get on a plane and go away. I don't want to take time and just be in New York and New York state. Since December 2019 I haven't gone out of state. I kept thinking things are gonna get better and I can have a real vacation. I'll wait. I'll wait. And then also a part of me didn't want to leave if things started to surge and I wasn't here to help my team. And also, if I went away, I'd just have this, you know, be thinking about this. So what's the sense?

When the weather was nice in the summer, myself and my other nurse managers would just go for walks around the hospital. Those were helpful to clear our heads and just talk about other things outside of work. It's a little thing, but people are looking forward to that again.

They're like, “When are we gonna go on our walk-and-chats?" You know, we can't wait for the weather to get nice. We really enjoyed that because we were at work, but that walk around the block takes our mind off things. We were outside with nature. And, you know, you could really breathe.

And also, we have to set the example for people to follow. So we're not gonna be jumping on a plane if it's not safe, or crowd in a restaurant. If it's not safe, um, to do so. So, yeah, for now, we'll just take the walk around the block.

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