Jamaican nurse receives US Presidential Medal of Freedom

Sandra Lindsay
President Joe Biden awards the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Sandra Lindsay during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 7, 2022. Lindsay is the New York nurse who rolled up her sleeve on live television in December 2020 to receive the first COVID-19 vaccination that was administered in the United States.
Associated Press/Susan Walsh

United States President Joseph Biden on Thursday bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom honor on a Jamaican-born nurse, the first in the United States to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus and a first-responder in New York City.

Biden said Sandra Lindsay is a New York critical care nurse, who served on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

He said she was the first American to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials and is “a prominent advocate for vaccines and mental health for health care workers.”

“If there’s any angels in Heaven, they’re all nurses, male and female,” said the US President in conferring the Medal on Lindsay in the East Room of the White House, stating that Lindsay’s vaccination card and badge are part of a Smithsonian exhibit on the coronavirus pandemic.

Lindsay was among 17 individuals who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first recipients of America’s highest civilian honor since Biden assumed office.

Among other recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom were American gymnast Simone Biles; former US Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, a survivor of gun violence, who co-founded Giffords, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gun violence prevention; John McCain (posthumously), who died in 2018 and had represented Arizona for decades in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate; and Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, who was unable to attend the ceremony because he tested positive for COVID-19, according to the White House.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of a retired Jamaican-born economist, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff were also among attendees at the White House ceremony.

“The Fourth of July week reminds us what brought us together long ago, and still binds us — binds us at our best, what we strive for,” said Biden in his opening remarks. “We, the people, doing what we can to ensure that the idea of America, the cause of freedom, shines like the sun to light up the future of the world.

“That’s the soul of our nation,” he added. “That’s who we are as Americans.”

In announcing the Award, the White House said in a statement that the Presidential Medal of Freedom is “presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.

“President Biden has long said that America can be defined by one word: possibilities,” it said. “These 17 Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance and faith.

“They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities — and across the world — while blazing trails for generations to come,” the statement added.

In February, United Nations General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid met with Lindsay, at UN headquarters in New York, a day before of a high-level vaccines event at which Lindsay spoke about the importance of vaccine equity.

Shahid said he was convening the event to galvanize momentum for universal vaccination.

Lindsay, an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, said it was “just amazing” that she, “this young lady from Jamaica, would one day end up in the General Assembly.”

The UN said the meet-and-greet was also an opportunity for Shahid to symbolically thank the health professionals in New York, “who have worked tirelessly since the outbreak of the pandemic to treat and support the diplomatic community, many of whom are New York residents.

“Medical workers have been on the front lines seven days a week, 16 hours a day. We thank them,” he said, calling it “a privilege to meet Ms. Lindsay and to hear from her about the work being done in New York.”

Lindsay, who holds a doctorate in health sciences, received her first COVID vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, following emergency use authorization of the shots.

The UN General Assembly President described her as a “pioneer who showed humanity” by taking the vaccine.

“You are one person whom the world will remember,” he said.

The UN said the publicity provided Dr. Lindsay with a platform, which she has used to advocate for the use of and access to COVID vaccines.

“Vaccine equity is near and dear to my heart. I am happy that you chose that as the theme of his high-level event,” Dr. Lindsay told President Shahid, calling the vaccine “hope.”

Lindsay created history by becoming the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a statement from the Office of the then New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The statement said Guyanese-born Dr. Michelle Chester, Northwell Health Director of Employee Health Services in New York, administered the vaccine, in December 2020, to Lindsay, a front-line health care worker eligible to receive the vaccine under Phase 1 of New York’s Vaccine Distribution Plan.

At the time, Lindsay said she wanted to “instill public confidence that the vaccine is safe.

“We’re in a pandemic; and so, we all need to do your part to put an end to the pandemic and to not give up so soon,” she said. “There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we still need to continue to wear our masks, to social distance.

“I believe in science,” Lindsay stressed. “As a nurse, my practice is guided by science; and so, I trust that. What I don’t trust is that, if I contract COVID, I don’t know how it would impact those who I come in contact with. So, I encourage everyone to take the vaccine.”

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