During a special ceremony held at the White House on Thursday, President Joseph R. Biden bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jamaican-born Sandra Lindsay, RN, DHSc, for becoming the first American to receive an approved Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine and her continued advocacy for public health equity.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made exceptionally meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace and cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. Sixteen others received the high honor with Dr. Lindsay in recognition of their accomplishments and advocacy to drive change. Dr. Lindsay is the first Jamaican-born Jamaican American to receive the medal.
“At 18 years old, Sandra Lindsay immigrated to Queens, NY from Jamaica to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. During the height of the pandemic she poured her heart into helping patients fight for their lives and to keep her fellow nurses safe. And when the time came, she was the first American to become fully vaccinated outside of clinical trials,” President Joe Biden said. “Sandra, as I told you before, if there are any angles in heaven, they are all nurses. Sandra’s vaccination card, hospital scrubs and badge are part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s exhibit on COVID-19 and today she receives our nation’s highest civilian honor.”
Other honorees include gymnast Simone Biles, Fmr. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Olympic gold medalist Megan Rapinoe, Brigadier General Wilma Vaught and actor Denzel Washington. Among the recipients is fellow Long Islander, Father Alexander Karloutsos, pastor of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons in Southampton, who has counseled several U.S. presidents. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established in 1963; since then, more than 650 medals have been bestowed.
On December 14, 2020, the world watched as Dr. Lindsay, a critical care nurse, made history when she rolled up her sleeve and received the first Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pfizer vaccine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJ-MC) in Queens, New York. Since then, Dr. Lindsay has been a vocal proponent of the need for vaccinations and has made it a personal mission to dispel medical misinformation and fight for equal health care access across the globe.
“During the pandemic, while working with my fellow nurses and colleagues on the frontlines, we waited for that sliver of hope – a vaccine – to help keep us going. It was an honor to raise my hand and volunteer to take the vaccine,” said Dr. Lindsay. “I am beyond thankful to President Biden for recognizing that momentous day and my continued efforts to end vaccine hesitancy and promote health care for everyone, no matter where you live, who you are, or the color of your skin.”
Dr. Lindsay has more than 27 years of nursing experience, most of which in critical care. During the pandemic, Dr. Lindsay was responsible for leading a team of nurses in some of the sickest COVID-19 wards at LIJ-MC. Northwell Health, the largest health care provider in New York, was the nation’s epicenter of the pandemic in March 2020 and has since treated more than 300,000 COVID-19 patients through all of its facilities, which include 21 hospitals.
“Sandra is the embodiment of courage and selflessness. That small brave act of getting the vaccine has rippled across the world and continues to leave a lasting impact,” said Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health. “We are proud of Sandra and what she represents to our Northwell family and beyond.”
This is Dr. Lindsay’s second trip to the White House and meeting with President Biden. Last July, Dr. Lindsay was given the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Outstanding Americans by Choice recognition during a special naturalization ceremony.
Since the historic vaccine shot, Dr. Lindsay has worked tirelessly to spread a message to eliminate vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. and abroad. Last March, Dr. Lindsay met with the President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), Abdulla Shahid, about the importance of vaccinating citizens of underserved nations. Last year, Northwell Health and Dr. Lindsay donated items from the historic day to the Smithsonian Institute, including her vaccination record card, scrubs, employee identification badge and the now-empty Pfizer-BioNTech vial, along with other items.
Other Northwell Health team members have been to the White House this past year; the Northwell Health Nurse Choir sang during the “In Performance at The White House: Spirit of the Season” televised special.