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“She poured her heart into helping patients and keeping her fellow nurses safe.”
—President Joseph Biden, as he draped a Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of Sandra Lindsay, DHSc, MS, MBA, RN, CCRN-K, NE-BC.
“Thank you for inspiring us.”
The impact her example had on vaccine-hesitant Americans can’t be measured, but Sandra Lindsay herself has heard directly from people who say that watching the Jamaican-born nurse persuaded them to get their shots. Last year, while on a visit to the Jamaican Embassy, a woman recognized her and thanked her profusely. She and her family had not intended to be vaccinated—until they saw Lindsay getting that first jab on TV. After seeing the nurse’s confident mien, she said, “We all went and made an appointment. So I want to thank you so much for inspiring us.”
That sort of recognition can be a force for good, and Lindsay is surely one of the best-known living nurses in the United States (and in Jamaica, of course!). It’s become a milestone in the history of the pandemic and a powerful symbol of what it means to be a nurse: the image of her serene face wrapped in a pale blue surgical mask, her expressive brown eyes gazing into the distance as she extends her arm to receive the first Covid-19 jab in the US.
Like most people who become symbols, she is not unique. The profession is filled with nurses like Lindsay—nurses who lost family to the pandemic and had no time to grieve; who continued pursuing their education through all of the upheavals; who coped with almost unbearable stress, and scrambled for data when the mRNA vaccines really did emerge at “warp speed” and forced us to rethink everything we thought we knew about vaccine development. But Lindsay’s exceptional poise and sense of responsibility during her frank “I trust the science” spotlight moment have made her representative of the skills, empathy, common sense, and honesty we associate with nursing.
A quiet icon of nurse leadership
While everyone yearned for certainty, Dr. Lindsay never claimed that science is a source of 100% correct, oracular knowledge; she merely said that this is the way that science works—and in effect acted as America’s test pilot for the vaccine.
As she sat down to receive her jab on December 14, 2020, what Lindsay displayed was a nurse’s dedication to evidence-based practice. When she backed this up by not collapsing on the spot or exploding in the weeks following her vaccination, she faded from national headlines and proceeded with her duties at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and worked toward yet another degree. But Lindsay’s persistent lack of rare side effects, her utter failure to cash in on her time in the spotlight, and apparent inability to catch even a mild case of breakthrough Covid made her a quiet icon of nurse leadership during the pandemic.
Millions of mistrustful, frightened people at all levels of society heard her speak with the sane, confident, honest voice of a nurse who has no agenda other than a desire to see her patients well and healthy. Amid rumor-driven panics, false claims based on specious data, and adult mobs throwing tantrums that would be the envy of any 3-year-old, Lindsay’s voice – imbued with a science-based assurance similar to Dr. Fauci’s but without any confrontational edge – resonated. Meanwhile, she has navigated her unasked-for celebrity and public honors with a cool-headed grace and continues to keep her head above water in an era when staffing shortages and burnout are the norm, women’s health care decisions are predicated not on science but on a peculiar blend of metaphysics and politics, and public health officials are driven from office… for doing their jobs.
How about featuring American Nurses on some postage stamps?
Today, after a year and a half of combining full-time work with study, waving from cars during ticker-tape parades, holding a little girl’s hand for her Covid jab, and adding tchotchkes to her diploma and awards wall, Dr. Lindsay is making space for the Presidential Medal of Freedom she received today from President Biden. (He obviously likes standing next to her and handing her things. This is their second rendezvous). As the White House defines the honor, the medal is bestowed on people who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States.
Lindsay has been a very atypical American celebrity, and there has not been a peep about reality TV deals, an as-told-to book, or even a barrage of media appearances. However, this writer still thinks she belongs on a stamp. While we still have a postal service, we deserve a “nurse” postage stamp of a more recent vintage than 1961—and in fact, it would not be amiss to issue a full series of stamps honoring American Nurses and Nursing.