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Nurse who received 1st COVID shot awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

ABC News logo ABC News 7/7/2022
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Following months of hardships and devastating losses in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse in New York, became a symbol of hope for people across the globe when she became the first person in the United States to receive a COVID-19 vaccine following emergency authorization from federal officials.

Seemingly overnight, Lindsay, who got the shot in December of 2020, became a prominent vaccine advocate, urging others to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and help curb the virus's spread.

In light of her advocacy, Lindsay was one of seventeen recipients to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden on Thursday.

"I'm honored to hold this place in history," Lindsay told ABC News prior to the ceremony.

MORE: Biden to award Medal of Freedom to McCain, Biles and more

In the hours following her vaccination, the image of Lindsay receiving her shot circulated rapidly across the country, as millions celebrated it as a symbolic light at the end of the tunnel after the pandemic had forced families apart.

Caption * Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, Dec. 14, 2020, in Queens, New York. © Pool via Getty Images Caption * Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, Dec. 14, 2020, in Queens, New York.

The Americans honored with the medal "demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance, and faith," according to a press release from the White House "[and] 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."

"Sandra, as I told you before, if there's any angels in heaven, they're all nurses," Biden said during the ceremony.

A citation read prior to the presentation of Lindsay's award noted that at the height of the pandemic, she directed a team of nurses as they worked "tirelessly to save patients while risking their own lives." When the COVID-19 vaccine was authorized, Lindsay was a "ray of light and our nation's dark power."

"She represents the best of America," the citation said.

Lindsay was honored alongside other Presidential Medal of Honor recipients, including former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father and founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center, and actor Denzel Washington.

MORE: First COVID-19 shot recipient in US now a vaccine activist

Last month, Lindsay initially missed the call from the White House informing her of the award, believing it was a prank call. When she learned that the honor was real, Lindsay said she was "overwhelmed" with emotions.

"I was just overwhelmed with pride, joy, gratitude and just immediately thought about what that meant for others, for people who look like me — for young ladies, for black women, for immigrants, for Jamaicans, for Americans, nurses, health care workers, minorities," Lindsay said.

Nurse Sandra Lindsay, center, gives an interview after she is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine, Dec. 14, 2020 at the Jewish Medical Center, in Queens, New York. © Pool via Getty Images Nurse Sandra Lindsay, center, gives an interview after she is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine, Dec. 14, 2020 at the Jewish Medical Center, in Queens, New York.

Lindsay, who works as the director of patient care services in critical care at Northwell Health, said was met with an incredibly positive public reaction following her vaccine, with some people telling her they were inspired to get the shot because of her.

For Lindsay, who was raised in Jamaica by her grandparents and moved to the United States in 1986, the honor is beyond anything she could have imagined.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be in this position. But I said yes. I said yes not knowing what I was getting into, but knowing that it was the right thing to do, and here I am today, so anything is possible," Lindsay said.

MORE: One year of COVID-19 vaccines: Millions inoculated, but hundreds of thousands still lost

With 70 million eligible Americans still unvaccinated, Lindsay stressed that her advocacy work is not done.

"We have made significant strides, but [COVID-19] is still here, and it still poses a threat to you, if you are not protected. I encourage everyone to go get themselves vaccinated," Lindsay said. "If you're not vaccinated, you're still not protected."

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