Nikki Lawley: cannabis connects my dots

nikki lawley on polka dots

My name is Nikki Lawley, and cannabis saved my life. I am a traumatic brain injury (TBI) survivor. I truly believe that without medical marijuana, I may not be here today. 

Finding cannabis was a long and difficult journey for me. My goal in starting this guest column was to share my experiences and guide others so that they do not struggle the same way I did. In this first edition, I want to tell my story.

Before my injury, I was a happy, well-rounded mother of two grown children, a grandmother, happily married, and with my partner of 20 years. I was a career-focused woman, accomplished as a business owner, casino dealer, and pediatric nurse. I enjoyed travel, and the outdoors, was an avid reader, and a social butterfly with a happy-go-lucky life. I was even going back to school for my RN degree.

But everything took a dramatic turn one October day—a day that would shift the very trajectory of my entire life as I knew it.

RELATED: Ask Dr. Leigh: what should older adults consider before trying medical cannabis?

The day my life changed forever

October 11, 2016, was the last day I worked in my chosen profession of nursing. I was just doing my job like any other day, in the middle of a 12-hour day working in a busy pediatric practice in Buffalo, New York. That’s when my life was forever altered.

On this particular day, there was a combative ten-year-old boy giving my co-worker a hard time getting his routine immunization. Every time my co-worker would go to give the injection, he would flap his arm like a duck, and it became a very unsafe situation. I went in to assist and helped the parent with a routine restraining hold to safely administer the vaccine.  

I got behind the parent and the combative ten-year-old, instructed the parent how to restrain his arms, and I went behind the child and the parent to secure the hold. In an instant, things changed. The child tucked his chin and threw his head back, hitting me in the forehead. I was thrown backward into the plaster wall and back into his head! I had just suffered a concussion / mild traumatic brain injury—but there was nothing mild about its impact on my life.  

I immediately recognized something was wrong. I struggled with my eyes, my left arm, head pain, dizziness, and overall feeling so sick! The physician who was working that evening sent me to urgent care, where it was confirmed I suffered a closed head injury, and gave me a note to be excused from work for the rest of the week. 

I never expected not to get better. I never expected not to be able to do my job anymore or continue pursuing my RN degree. I never thought my life as I knew it would be over. I never knew what chronic pain was as I had never experienced it. I never knew what invisible illness was or how my credibility of being a healthcare provider would come into question, and the once-respected nurse was now suffering from “subjective” symptoms. 

nikki lawley shows her injuries
Pediatric nurse Nikki Lawley suffered a traumatic brain injury after being kicked by a patient. Photo: Nikki Lawley

From nurse to patient

TBI changed EVERYTHING in my life! The most basic of skills was now impaired, from finding the right words, memory, working memory, balance, never-ending head pain, neck pain, and loss of the ability to count, to the incredible anxiety I suffered every day. 

I was so stressed out about not working, about all the appointments I now had with different doctors and therapists, never-ending imaging, and non-stop replaying the incident with all these providers. I could not work, and my life became a blur of appointments. 

I could not do the most simple things in those early days and years. My husband went from being my chosen life partner to being my full-time caregiver. He had to drive me everywhere, he had to do all the wash and household duties, he had to take care of the pets, and make all decisions for our household. 

I was in a system of hell and made to feel like I was crazy. It was almost like I had to PROVE I was ill, that I was in pain, and that I was no longer the same person. 

Workers’ compensation has specific benchmarks for how long they will pay for treatment or what the standard time one should be having issues is. My brain injury was not falling into these set guidelines, and I had multiple “independent” medical exams that were designed and incentivized for the doctor to get the claimant back to work.  

It was a horrible and horrific experience going from the respected nurse to the malingering crazy woman with “nothing wrong.” After seeing over 50 medical providers, being on over 50 different medications, traveling to several different states, and even going to Canada for specialized testing and treatments, it was a huge burden physically, financially, and emotionally for my family. 

There was something wrong, but it took 18 months to finally get a diagnosis.  I not only had a traumatic brain injury but also cervical instability in my neck, which explained so many of my lingering symptoms. And while I was in dire agony, I would soon find relief in the most unexpected way.

Finding hope and healing through cannabis

I discovered cannabis by accident in the most unlikely of places. My husband, trying to cheer me up, planned a trip to Las Vegas. Before my injury, I loved traveling to Sin City.  

At this point, I was in no shape to go on vacation. I struggled to leave my house—how was I going to handle Las Vegas? My husband was positive this would “cheer” me up because I loved Vegas so much. 

But the trip was an absolutely horrific experience. The flight, the airport, the people, the lights, and the activities were all so overwhelming. The first four days of our trip, I was unable to leave our room, not even to go to dinner! I just cried in agony and pain and was feeling so depressed I was prepared to take my life. 

We were in a balcony room on the Las Vegas Strip. I dragged the end table over to the edge of the balcony and stood up on it, saying to myself, “I just need to stop being a burden to the world, no one can live like this. It’s not fair to my husband to have to endure this human he doesn’t have any quality of life with.” 

In that split second, I saw a mobile billboard driving by on the Strip advertising, “Get your medical marijuana card in Nevada today.” It came by a second time, and I just laughed. It was really comical because I was a DARE graduate, and my son had been arrested three years prior for growing cannabis plants. 

While I was not an avid user of cannabis, I occasionally consumed it at parties. I never thought of cannabis as medicine—I never imagined it could assist me.  Well, that day, my husband returned to the room, and I mentioned to him about the billboard. Immediately he said, “Let’s go! Let’s try it!”

I was not as enthusiastic, but I reluctantly decided to go get my medical card at a clinic and visit a dispensary. It was very overwhelming at the time, but the products I got that day at the dispensary literally gave me hope for the first time since my injury!  

After four days of not leaving the hotel room, I was able to function in a way I had not in months. For the first time, I found hope in SOMETHING. Cannabis didn’t cure me, but it gave me hope, it gave me something to focus on besides the despair my life had turned into.  

Crossing the border to find relief

As I mentioned, I live in Buffalo, NY. Since I had my Nevada cannabis card, I expected to have the same experience in my home state as I did in Nevada. I could not have been more wrong. New York did not recognize any of my medical issues as a qualifying condition. 

I shared my experience with the workers’ comp doctors, and immediately I was told I was a drug user and cannabis had no medical benefit. I was told if I smoked cannabis, I was just getting high! 

I became hopeless again and went back on traditional medications. At the end of 2018, New York approved chronic pain as one of our qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, and I was able to get a card. Unfortunately, the quality of medicine in my home state was low, and I found myself again disappointed. 

Thankfully, I had friends in Canada who allowed me to travel to their homes and experience Canadian cannabis. I was able to learn so much about cannabis as medicine: I learned how cannabis could help me with my chronic pain, anxiety and depression, and cognitive function challenges. 

I became a medical cannabis refugee in Canada because of the access to so many specific products that helped me find relief. For me, cannabis helps my symptoms so much not because of just one or two components of the plant but because of the entire product, including minor cannabinoids and terpenes.

RELATED: Which states accept out-of-state medical marijuana cards?

Cannabis connects my dots

Nikki Lawley holds a jar of cannabis flower
Nikki Lawley went from nurse to medical cannabis advocate and educator. Photo: Nikki Lawley

Cannabis saved my life, and because of this, I am a loud, proud, and passionate advocate. I am normalizing the conversation surrounding cannabis as medicine. I have learned so much, and I believe I was chosen for this journey to help others discover cannabis as medicine for their symptoms—especially for people dealing with invisible illnesses and mental health challenges. 

Cannabis can help with so many symptoms people are struggling with. Doctors are not taught about cannabis as medicine, and it has been the patients educating healthcare providers about how cannabis has helped them. There is still a massive misconception of cannabis as medicine, and I am just one person with a story trying to change the world and get safe access to plant medicine for the masses.

Knowing that medical cannabis can improve the quality of life for so many people, I always seek to educate wherever I can to help remove the stigma. I am always answering questions about my experience with products in different markets as I have tried thousands of brands, delivery systems, and unique products from all over the US and Canada. 

I hope people find this column both informative and useful in removing the stigma by sharing stories and normalizing the conversation. Cannabis connects my dots and allows me to have a quality of life I never imagined. The plant is my passion, and I want to educate folks to look at it without fear and help people to live their best lives!

This article was submitted by a guest contributor to GreenState. The statements within do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GreenState, Hearst, or its subsidiaries. The author is solely responsible for the content.

nikki lawley

Nikki Lawley is a patient advocate, speaker, and founder of Nikki and the Plant. She personally discovered cannabis as medicine after suffering a life-changing injury while working as a pediatric nurse. Nikki resides in Buffalo, NY.