When I rolled up my sleeve to get the country’s first COVID-19 vaccine, little did I know that Day One of the country’s climb back from our pandemic hell would also be my plunge into life as a public figure.
I view that moment on Dec. 14, 2020, now with overwhelming gratitude, as this year’s holiday season started so differently. The weekend with my grandson and Thanksgiving meal with my mother are a beautiful, stark contrast from this time last year.
At the time of my inoculation, the country was experiencing another rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Front-line workers like me had spent months watching hundreds of thousands of patients die, many of them alone because of social-distancing policies in our hospitals.
Struggling through the pandemic
Personally, my family and I were facing serious challenges.
The virus made it dangerous for me to support my mother emotionally in person as she mourned her sister’s death. At the same time, my son and daughter-in-law traveled between their home and a neonatal intensive care unit to oversee their son’s care.
Avery was born prematurely as the city locked down during the pandemic’s first wave. Here I was, a nurse trained to save people in the direst circumstances, and I couldn’t help feeling so helpless in the fate of my baby grandson. I wished he had an easier entrance into what I considered a ruthless world. I prayed that his life would be easier in years to come.
I was burned out, fearful and exhausted. However, I, like my colleagues, refused to miss a day of work. I was determined to show up for my team and my family.
I had learned about COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials but never imagined I would get the first dose after approval for use – or that it would push me to take on such an activist role.
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Discovering this part of my identity over the last year has led to a sense of pride. It also led to a personal reckoning.
That’s because some people on the extreme political right and left used my vaccination to undermine the vaccine effort, distort the clear mission of public health and/or bend our country’s meaning of individual liberty.
I’ve had to take on another role, that of an educator, to keep people from chipping away at the historic medical marvel these vaccines have become. I want to keep misinformation and disinformation at bay – especially when it comes to those hit hardest by the disease.
I’m referring to communities of color. As a Black woman, an immigrant from Jamaica and a proud U.S. citizen, I wanted to be a positive influence in a time of need. But sometimes that idea, too, was twisted into a different narrative.
White supremacists used my vaccination to find creative ways to peddle hatred. There were also some from my own community who said I allowed myself to be manipulated.
My vaccination cannot alter the history of Black people’s abuse under the cover of medical advancement.
Nonetheless, I do hope it might set us on a path to transparency, trust and, ultimately, equal access to quality medical care across all communities.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to meet world leaders since getting my shot, using my experience to highlight the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
I’ve had the honor of being grand marshal at New York City’s ticker-tape parade recognizing health care heroes; I celebrated my heritage at the White House with President Joe Biden; I traveled to meet with the prime minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, and to speak to the people of the island nation.
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It has been a long year, but if some drew inspiration from my spotlighted vaccination to get inoculated themselves, I’d do it all again. It’s a natural extension of my nursing career.
I want us to rely more on science than politics.
If this past year has proved anything, it’s that it isn’t always easy to work together, but we’ve also learned how important it is for us to never give up for the sake of health equity – not just in our country, but every country around the globe.
I committed to making this world a better place long before I got my vaccine and, since then, have gained a deeper understanding of my professional and personal impact. I will continue to keep politics and patriotism firmly in their place to make room for our next steps, together, to one day reach an end to this pandemic.
Sandra Lindsay, director of Patient Critical Care Services at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was the first person in the United States to receive a COVID-19 vaccine outside of a clinical trial.