‘It felt very mystical.’
Wayne Chambers was preparing to send the Dec. 15, 2020 edition of the Eagle to the printer when a woman on the front page caught his attention.
The A1 photo featured an intensive care nurse named Sandra Lindsay, her nose and mouth obscured by a surgical mask, sitting in a chair at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center while she received the country’s very first COVID-19 vaccine.
Chambers, a musician and the production chief for the Queens and Brooklyn Daily Eagles, swore he knew her.DAILY TOP BROOKLYN NEWSNews for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond
“Her face resonated with me, even though she had her mask on,” Chambers said. “And then I looked at the caption and saw her name, and her name rang a bell. But I’m talking about decades.”
He kept repeating the name in his mind until it clicked. Lindsay, he realized, was the younger sister of a close friend back in his hometown of May Pen, Jamaica, the small capital of the parish of Clarendon. Chambers had not seen the Lindsay family since they attended Palmers Cross All Age elementary school together, but he had recently reconnected with the brother, Garfield, on Facebook.
When Chambers logged into the social network, he saw he wasn’t the only person from May Pen reveling in their former schoolmate’s moment of history. “I went on Facebook and there was Gary bragging about his little sister,” he said.
Lindsay’s vaccination was a major milestone in the fight against COVID-19, an illness that has taken a devastating toll on immigrant communities in New York City and nationwide.
For Chambers, it was also a moment of inspiration.–>
“It felt very mystical,” Chambers said.
He reached out to Lindsay to congratulate her. He swelled with pride as he reflected on their immigrant experiences, he said.
“We come from small towns like May Pen to New York City,” he said. “But we are from a place that teaches us self worth, freedom and community values. No surprise to me when I see my Jamaican folks in leadership positions across the spectrum of American society.”
“I got reassured about my journey,” he added. “I reminisce on where I’m coming from and what it takes to get to where I am today.”
Chambers made his way to New York City via Florida, where he performed dub poetry and worked for Miami area newspapers. It was a different path than Lindsay, who arrived in New Rochelle in 1986 and moved to the Bronx before making her permanent home in Port Washington.
New York City and state have so far failed to uphold a commitment to prioritizing people of color, particularly immigrants, for the COVID vaccine since Lindsay received her dose nearly two months ago.
Still, she said, she recognizes the power of a Black woman from Jamaica, an accomplished healthcare worker, receiving the first vaccine. “Hopefully more people like me, formal and informal leaders who are Black and Brown, immigrants, get it and share their experiences, and hopefully that will inspire more people,” she said.
In fact, it already has.
“People have told me they’ve gone to get the vaccine after seeing me get it and talking about my experiences,” she said.
Many of those messages have filtered through Garfield Lindsay, whose Facebook page is a repository for his sister’s media appearances.
Lindsay stopped using Facebook in 2016 but Garfield has continued to update her on the love pouring in from May Pen and across the Jamaican diaspora, she said.
Word traveled fast as family, friends and former classmates saw her talking with Gov. Andrew Cuomo the day of her historic vaccination or watched her interviews on ABC News, caught her conversations on Jamaican TV stations or, in Chambers’ case, noticed her eyes and forehead while sending the Queens Daily Eagle pages to the printer.
“It’s been exciting,” she said. “I am receiving a lot of messages from friends and family.”
An overnight ambassador
The unlikely connection with Chambers was one many twists in Lindsay’s path to the vaccine.
For months, she told colleagues she wanted a shot as soon as it was available. Then her supervisor contacted her on Dec. 13: Doses would be available at Long Island Jewish Hospital the next morning, the head of nursing said. Would she roll up her sleeve?
“Absolutely,” Lindsay said she responded. “I’m ready. I’ve been ready.”
“When I heard that the vaccine was in development, I said I would be the first to get it,” she said. “I said, I’ll camp out for this. I’ve never gone Black Friday shopping, but I will do that for this.’”
It was only the next morning, the day of her shot, that she learned she would become the very first recipient outside of clinical trials in the United States.
Immediately, major news organizations reached out to interview her. She became an overnight ambassador for the vaccine, talking with Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, The View and, yes, even the Eagle, thanks to a phone call from Chambers.
Since that day, she has served as a crucial ambassador for the vaccine — an unexpected role, but one that she has embraced.
“I didn’t know this would get any attention at all,” Lindsay said. “My brother didn’t know the magnitude of this. My mother called him and said CNN called her looking for me and she was wondering if I was in trouble.”
The media requests came pouring in, she said: “This is Anderson Cooper’s producer, this is Don Lemon’s, Chris Cuomo’s.”
It turns out Lindsay is an adept interview subject and a brilliant public health advocate who can convey the importance of receiving the vaccine, even to skeptics.
“I’m addressing some of the myths, debunking some of the conspiracy theories,” she said.
‘The face of the cure’
Lindsay’s commitment to her new role is informed by her own research — she has combed the vaccine studies, searching for information about clinical trials on women, on people her age, on Black and African Americans — and by her experience treating desperately ill New Yorkers during the peak of the pandemic.
Throughout March and April, she said, she worked 12-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. opening new intensive care units and moving the dead out of beds to make room for other critically ill patients.
One day in March illustrates the agony and exhaustion that she and her colleagues experienced, she said.
“We went from four ICUs to at one point 10 ICUs, so we tripled our capacity,” she said. “We had room for 150 people but that didn’t mean there was only 150. People died and other people were waiting to come in.”
She climbed the stairs to open yet another ICU and found that she could no longer walk.
“I was weak, exhausted and hot, and the first thing that came to my mind was, “I hope I don’t have COVID. I hope I don’t have COVID.”
Her supervisor noticed and recommended she go home to rest. When she refused, he overruled her.
But at home, Linsday found herself scared to close her eyes.
“I didn’t have a temperature so I said a prayer and went to bed,” she said. “The next day I woke up and felt fine. I think I was just exhausted.”
She returned to work treating patients the next day.
Nine months later, she assumed her other role as chief vaccine ambassador, an inspiration to her former schoolmates and immigrants across the United States.
“I’m so impressed with her,” Chambers said. “She came to America, went to school, got a good job, and now she’s the face of the cure for this disaster.”