All her life Lauren Leander has been told she needs to speak up and participate more.
“I’ve always been the quiet one, I’ve always been more subdued. I have never been one to be loud or draw attention to myself. I’ve been like that since I was a kid,” said Leander.
So it’s not lost on the intensive care unit nurse that she became known globally for a counterprotest in which she stood masked, silent and defiant with two other nurses in the midst of an angry crowd at a protest to reopen Arizona’s economy.
After the protest, a powerful image taken by Arizona Republic photographer Michael Chow of Leander’s silent counterprotest went viral, and she was met with a deluge of interview requests from major media outlets. She was finally ready to use her voice.
“The world just pushed me into this spotlight and pushed me out of my shell. This is the first time in my life that I’ve really come out of it, and it’s done a lot for me in a lot of ways,” she said.
Since that day in April 2020, Leander, an alumna of ASU’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, continued working in the COVID-19 unit of her hospital while also making use of the spotlight to advocate on behalf of her patients and health care colleagues.
She also started a wildly successful GoFundMe campaign that raised $286,000 to buy personal protective equipment, medical supplies and compassion fatigue gifts for Navajo and Hopi front-line nurses.
Her bravery and continued advocacy were recently recognized by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation as part of its annual John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, which honors public officials. President Barack Obama and Gabrielle Giffords are previous recipients.
This year, the foundation wanted to find a way to also honor civilians who have been on the front lines of the pandemic, going above and beyond to help their communities.
They established the JFK Profile in COVID Courage Award to do just that, putting out a call for nominations, and thousands poured in. Leander was one of seven people from around the country selected to receive the honor.
Candy Barchenger, a complete stranger to Lauren, was the one who submitted her for the award after seeing her iconic photo in the paper and reading her story. That image and Leander’s story brought her to tears.
“When I saw a request for nominations for the JFK Profiles in COVID Courage Award, my mind flashed to the photo of Lauren. Her actions were synonymous with courage! Nominating her was an honor. It was a way to express my gratitude for the inspiration and hope that her actions provided during the dark days of the pandemic,” said Barchenger.
No one was more surprised than Leander when she found out about the award from some very special people during a Zoom call facilitated by ASU President Michael Crow.
“Total shock. I think I was already in shock, like, why does President Crow want to talk to me? And then to have Caroline Kennedy on the screen... It was just flooring. I felt really honored just to meet them and talk to them. It was super-cool and very humbling,” she said.
The ceremony was held virtually in late May with Jimmy Fallon hosting.
Leander’s mother, Sandy Leander, who is an ASU employee, was interviewed as part of the video piece for the ceremony.
She had this to say about her daughter: “Lauren showed an incredible amount of courage to stay calm in the face of adversity. And her silence in the midst of a volatile situation was more powerful than words ever could have been. Through it all — from volunteering to work the COVID unit to raising funds to help her colleagues — her bravery and compassion for others were like a beacon during dark times. To be recognized by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for her courage is truly an honor that is well-deserved. I’m so very proud of her.”
Crow also saw Leander’s powerful picture in the newspaper, and said he was so impressed by her courage that he reached out immediately to thank her for her outstanding efforts.
In a letter supporting Leander’s nomination for the award, Crow said in part, “Her silent and firm stance against misinformation spoke volumes. … She continues to take great risk in working the COVID-19 unit and serving as a voice for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities at a time when speaking out remains controversial. ASU is proud to have her as an alum, as she is an excellent example for our students and all people.”
Teri Pipe, dean emeritus of Edson College and ASU’s chief well-being officer, remembers Leander fondly and said she is “a shining example of nurse advocacy and leadership.”
Following Leander’s continued COVID-19 awareness efforts and passion to support fellow nurses over the last year, Pipe can’t help but feel delighted by the nurse and champion Leander has grown into.
“Lauren has demonstrated admirable accountability on behalf of her patients and colleagues, reaching a level of influence in the broader community and society as evidenced by this award. She’s a wonderful representation of Sun Devil nursing and her courage has made us all very proud,” Pipe said.
Barchenger, who initiated this process, said watching the ceremony once again brought her to tears, but this time it was tears of joy.
“Courage comes at a cost and she didn’t hesitate to put herself at risk for others. Through her actions, she answered JFK’s challenge to 'Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.' I am thrilled that Lauren is a recipient of this prestigious award and has been recognized for her selfless actions,” she said.
Throughout the pandemic Leander was not big on being called a hero or brave — after all, she was just doing her job, taking care of and advocating on behalf of her patients both at the bedside and through her newfound media platform.
“I’ve just been a nurse, and classically, nurses are the ones who just put their head down and just do the work that needs to be done,” said Leander.
But this experience has fundamentally changed her. She says it lit a fire inside of her and made her see all that she is capable of. And the award itself came at the perfect time for contemplation.
“It gave me a chance to sit and reflect and feel really proud and realize that this thing was a lot bigger than I realized it would ever be. So it was super special not only to meet them but to have the honor of this award and realize like, 'OK, I did something pretty cool this year.'”
She’ll have a lot more time to reflect on the wild ride she’s been on over the last 16 months soon. Like many of her fellow nurses, after this traumatic year, she’s planning some much-needed time off from the hospital.
Her goal is to unplug and reset so that she can come back to the bedside refreshed. In the meantime, her hope is that perhaps the courage she found within herself will catch on.
“Maybe there are other quiet girls out there who saw my picture or saw me on TV and were inspired and found a little fire in them to speak up. Because if I can do it, they can do it, too.”
Top photo: ASU alumna and ICU nurse Lauren Leander earned global recognition after an image of her standing masked, silent and defiant in the face of angry protestors went viral, but it's what she's done since the protest that she's most proud of. Photo by Drew Gayner