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The Exec: Northwell Health's New VP of Public Health Advocacy

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   November 03, 2022

Sandra Lindsay, RN, MBA, DHSc, shares insights into her background and new role.

Editor's note: This conversation is a transcript from an episode of the HealthLeaders Podcast. Audio of the full interview can be found here and below.

The first American to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine was Sandra Lindsay, RN, MBA, DHSc, a nurse leader at Northwell Health in New York. In recognition of that decision, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Lindsay continues to be a vaccine advocate, and recently became the health system's vice president of public health advocacy, where she will help the organization educate underserved populations to better understand health.

In a recent podcast interview, Lindsay shared her experiences during the pandemic, and gives insights into how her personal background has played a role in her professional life and what she aims to accomplish in her new role.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: Can you share your personal and professional background and what drew you to working in healthcare?

Sandra Lindsay: I was born in Jamaica, [in the] West Indies, and I migrated here at the age of 18. I completed what we call primary and high school in Jamaica. I came here to pursue my dream of becoming a nurse.

I grew up with my grandparents; my grandmother had chronic illnesses, so I took care of her, and I enjoyed taking care of her. I think, naturally, I was just drawn to becoming a nurse.

When I came here, that journey took some twists and turns. I came here, I think, with $50, not enough to enroll in school. I didn't come on a scholarship and so I had to work to get my application fee for school, for tuition, for books. I worked at local supermarkets [and] convenience stores, I did babysitting, and I remember the day I worked up enough money to apply to a two-year college, Borough of Manhattan Community College, which is where I got my foundation.

I graduated from school in March of 1994 and joined the team at Lenox Hill Hospital as a clinical nurse, or what we call an entry-level registered nurse in the field of oncology. I did that for about three years. Then I was eligible for tuition reimbursement, and I decided to pursue my Bachelor's, get a Master's in business administration, and then went on to get my Doctorate.

It's been a slow, steady journey, but [there is] nothing that I would change about the journey because I've learned so much along the way. And every rung of that ladder has prepared me for where I am today.

HL: In December of 2020 you volunteered to be the first American vaccinated against COVID-19 with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine. What was that experience like and what were your experiences during the pandemic?

Lindsay: [I worked] on the frontlines and [led] a team of over 300 people during the pandemic. Every day you did not know what you were going to walk into. There were so many unknowns. It was mentally and physically exhausting. I witnessed overwhelming loss, harm, [and] trauma experienced by myself and others. It was this huge burden that I was carrying around.

I didn't have answers for staff, who, usually in a crisis, are looking to the leader for answers. What was important for me to demonstrate and to share with people was transparency: being open and honest with people that I don't have all the answers, but as soon as I get some insight I would share with them.

When I heard approximately six days after the World Health Organization reported that COVID-19 was a pandemic, [that] Pfizer came out with their intention to develop a vaccine. I was following all of that. I read the initial study and I was comfortable with what was reported in the study findings; [I] weighed the risks versus the benefits. I knew that all the interventions of social distancing, hand hygiene, and wearing our masks were preventative strategies to prevent the spread of the virus, but it wouldn't help us get rid of the virus and curb the harm, the trauma, and the death, like vaccines can do and have been shown to do.

I was very comfortable. I was an advocate. I walked around talking about how much I can't wait for the vaccine to come to market, that I would go wherever the vaccine is being offered, just to get that extra level of protection. I was excited when I heard that the vaccine got emergency use authorization, and that it was coming to New York, and that it was coming to Northwell.

I volunteered to be among the first set of people who got vaccinated at Northwell. I did that in addition to what I saw as my professional responsibility, [but] also my civic duty. We are in the throes of this pandemic, [and] I think it's everybody's responsibility to do their part, to help the situation. I saw it also as protecting myself and my family. I wanted to instill public confidence in the science, particularly among people of color; due to historical experiences, I knew that there would be some fear and hesitation about getting the vaccine. So, those were my reasons for wanting to get vaccinated, and it still remains one of the best decisions that I've made in my life.

HL: What was your experience receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Lindsay: That was surreal. That was so far out of my thoughts; when I got the call, I thought it was a prank call. This doesn't happen to normal people like me. When I see these medals being given out in the past, I always associated it with celebrities, people of great influence, and so that was the furthest thing from my mind.

But I am really grateful. I share the spotlight, and recognition, and all the accolades that I've gotten with my fellow healthcare workers, nurses, women, woman of color, [and] immigrants. It comes at a timely point in our lives in society when there's so much turmoil, especially among immigrants and what immigrants stand for. I was extremely proud to stand there as an immigrant and have President Biden bestow the highest honor on me. I share this with all these groups that I identify with.

HL: At the beginning of October you were named Northwell Health's VP of public health advocacy. What short-term and long-term initiatives are you excited to lead in this new role?

Lindsay: I'm excited to use my expertise and influence to bring about change. As it relates to my role here at Northwell Health, that is working with the organization to raise health standards, and to provide better health for the diverse communities that we serve. We endeavor to close the health disparities gap and I'm excited to be a part of that, [and] to help the organization to realize its mission of providing compassionate and equitable care.

We're still in the pandemic. COVID is still happening. [We're] still working short-term to continue to educate people about preventing COVID [and] influenza, and educating and encouraging people to get vaccinated.

A long-term goal is helping the organization to do what I call "do health better," before we do healthcare. It's getting into the underserved communities helping them to understand health, [and] working with our different divisions: population health, community health, global health.

It's working with other executives to create sustainable programs, initiatives, and structures so that we can do health better, so that when people do need healthcare, they feel comfortable coming to us as a trusted partner and knowing that we will be there for them.

HL: How does your background as an immigrant, a woman of color, [and] a nurse help define your leadership style?

Lindsay: My current leadership style is a combination of being a servant leader; being of service to people, [and] transformational leadership. It's helping people to develop and grow, starting from wherever they are.

My upbringing has prepared me for this leadership style. Growing up with my grandparents, they were always serving the community, so I saw firsthand what service and giving back was like. When I started as a bedside nurse, it was in service to my patients. As a leader, it was in service to my staff. And now in this vice president role, it's in service to a larger community, both nationally and internationally.

HL: Do you have any advice you'd like to share for women, immigrants, and for people of color who aspire to be leaders in healthcare?

Lindsay: My advice is to— it might sound cliche, but it's true— never give up on your dream. Just stay focused. The journey is going to be windy, and it's not one straight journey, but there is value in those twists and turns.

It's learning the lessons, applying them, [and] surrounding yourself with positive people.

Seek out mentors who can help you to develop and grow. And when you get there, pay it forward to somebody else.

Make a commitment to lifelong learning. It's not just getting the position you want and [then] you're done. There is always something to learn, and that's how you develop and grow as an individual and as an expert in whatever field you decide to get into.

“I share the spotlight, and recognition, and all the accolades that I've gotten with my fellow healthcare workers, nurses, women, woman of color, [and] immigrants. It comes at a timely point in our lives in society when there's so much turmoil, especially among immigrants and what immigrants stand for.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: New Hyde Park, NY - October 6, 2021: Sandra Lindsay, RN receives COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine booster at Teaching Center LIJ Medical Center / lev radin / Shutterstock.com


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