It has been a year since Sandra Lindsay, director of nursing for the critical care division at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. On Monday, she spoke about how her life has changed. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca/Alejandra Villa Loarca

One year ago, a critical care nurse from Port Washington, who had emigrated from Jamaica more than 30 years earlier, rolled up the sleeve of her Long Island Jewish Medical Center scrubs and took a jab in her left shoulder that would change the course of American health care.

Since Sandra Lindsay, 53, became the first American to be inoculated with an approved COVID-19 shot on Dec. 14, 2020, she has become an international figure touting the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

She was honored at the White House by President Joe Biden; traveled to Jamaica to meet with the island's prime minister; led a parade in Manhattan for health care workers; and had her scrubs, vaccination card and ID badge memorialized in a COVID-19 exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Bur Lindsay, who oversees the intensive care units at Northwell Health's Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, says it's the more mundane interactions with regular New Yorkers that have impacted her the most.

"It's the everyday, ordinary people seeing me on the street or in different locations and recognizing me, even with my mask on … and coming up to me and saying, 'Thank you. You inspired me. I wasn't going to take the vaccine but after I saw you, I really got the courage to take it,' " Lindsay said in an interview.

Lindsay's whirlwind year, filled with optimistic highs and bittersweet lows, mirrors those of a nation that envisioned a post-COVID world once the vaccines were introduced but have watched in frustration as the pandemic extended seemingly indefinitely.

The good news: Nearly 240 million Americans have received at least one shot of the vaccine, including 80% of all New Yorkers. But COVID's infection rate is climbing once again — Long Island is now at 6.6% — and 46 New Yorkers, nearly all of whom are believed to be unvaccinated, succumbed to the virus on Sunday, data shows.

"Sandra Lindsay receiving that historic vaccination was a critical first step forward in the fight against COVID-19," said Dr. David Battinelli, vice dean at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. "This will clearly be a long journey — a marathon, really — given the enormity of the population that must receive vaccines, boosters and likely modified vaccines before this pandemic is over."

Nurse Sandra Lindsay, of Port Washington, poses outside Long Island...

Nurse Sandra Lindsay, of Port Washington, poses outside Long Island Jewish Medical Center on Monday.   Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Lindsay calls the past year "surreal" as her profile exploded into the public eye and she became one of the leading public voices for vaccination.

"I just thought I was getting vaccinated to protect myself, my loved ones and my community and to satisfy my personal and civic responsibilities," said the North Shore mother and grandmother. "But since that debut it's been like a whirlwind."

For the past year, it's been a nonstop barrage of media interviews, medical panels, award ceremonies and advocacy work for Lindsay, all while completing her doctorate in health sciences, continuing her post at LIJ and helping care for her grandson Avery who was born last year 17 weeks early but who has since fully recovered.

"I can't believe it's already a year," she said. "In some ways the time went by fast as the months kept going and going and we are busy here still. In other ways it moves slowly when I look back at the progress toward getting back to normal. We've made tremendous progress and don't want to minimize that. But I would have thought we would have sprinted faster across the finish line."

By the time COVID-19 patients reach her unit, Lindsay says it's often too late to save them. But she continues advocating for the vaccine and booster — which she received in October — even in the face of widespread misinformation and conspiracy theories.

"We are still fighting this war," said Lindsay, who lost an uncle from the Bronx and an aunt from Rockland County to COVID early in the pandemic. "We're in the middle of it and can't turn back now. We are closer to the end than the beginning but it's the longest mile to the end."

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