On the morning of December 14, 2020, Sandra Lindsay made history. The director of critical care nursing at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Lindsay, 52, sat down in front of TV cameras and the media and became the first person in the United States to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Like many across New York State and the country, New-York Historical Associate Curator Cristian Panaite watched the event with both awe and hope. He also saw a moment that needed to be preserved. The next morning, he emailed Northwell Health—the network behind Long Island Jewish among many other hospitals in New York—and asked if they’d be interested in donating any objects or artifacts related to the first vaccinations.
Four months later—while the U.S. marks the sad anniversary of the first lockdowns in the pandemic—New-York Historical is on the verge of acquiring a small piece of that history as part of our History Responds initiative. Northwell Health will be donating four items: a duplicate of Sandra Lindsay’s vaccination card, her work ID badge, a set of her scrubs, and empty vials of both the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Lindsay recently sat down with Panaite via Zoom for an intake interview about the objects entering our collection. (The New Yorker covered the interview as part of a recent piece on History Responds.) She recounted her own history as an immigrant from Jamaica and the harrowing days she and her staff worked through during the bleakest periods of the pandemic in New York. “At the peak, we were up to 10 ICU spaces. As people passed away, more people filled the beds,” she told Panaite. “There were days where I didn’t even remember the drive home.” She also talked about setting an example as a Black woman and encouraging vaccinations in communities of color. “She sees it as part of her job to be an ambassador,” says Panaite. “Even after working 16-hour shifts.”
The objects from Northwell will eventually go on view in the Museum. When they do, they’ll join another new acquisition that’s scheduled to go on view on April 2. Called Nurse Tracey, it’s a dynamic portrait of a mask-wearing nurse striking the iconic pose from the World War II-era poster of Rosie the Riveter.
Nurse Tracey was created by Tim Okamura, a Japanese-Canadian artist, and was discovered by Panaite over the summer while he was searching for art related to the Black Lives Matter protests. He stumbled on Okamura’s painting of a powerful, young Black woman wearing a hoodie that reads Everybody VS Injustice and struck up a correspondence. He eventually headed out to Okamura’s Brooklyn studio last July where the artist was working on a series of paintings focused on frontline healthcare workers. Panaite was immediately struck by the half-finished oil-on-linen painting known as “Nurse Rosie,” until Okamura changed the name in honor of the real nurse who served as the model. “It was a visceral moment for me,” Panaite says. “You don’t have to call yourself a curator to understand why it was such an important work.”
Acquired with a generous donation from Susan and Robert Klein, Nurse Tracey joins the works already on view as part of the exhibition Dreaming Together: New-York Historical Society and Asia Society Museum. Curator Wendy Ikemoto notes that it’s a powerful distillation of the themes that have been so present over the past year. “As a monumental portrait of a Black health care professional fighting on the front lines of the pandemic, Nurse Tracey brings to the fore the racial dimensions of the pandemic—both the large number of people of color risking their lives to fight the disease and its disproportionate toll on communities of color,” she says.
Top image: Pfizer vaccine vials (Courtesy of Northwell Health)