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Nurse Turned Patient: Nikki Lawley on Healing Her Brain with Cannabis

Hannah (Izer) Vysoky

By Hannah (Izer) Vysoky

June 28, 2022

Courtesy Nikki Lawley

“I’m pretty direct. I don’t play the game, so I think that’s why my following is so crazy because I’m so authentic,” Nikki Lawley shared with us as we began our conversation together after connecting in person at the MJ Unpacked event in New York City.

While working as a pediatric nurse in October 2016, Nikki suffered both a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and a whiplash injury to her neck. She has been unable to work as a nurse ever since. Her injury also comes with some debilitating symptoms, which include cognitive issues, chronic

and severe neck .

Today, Lawley is passionate about sharing her incredible story detailing how cannabis is medicine for her TBI. Courageously sharing her story is helping others to see the true benefits of cannabis being utilized as medicine.

We sat down with Lawley to discuss her experience as a nurse, her advocacy within the cannabis industry and the developments happening with her organization,

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A Passion for Patients

High There: How did you first become involved in your career as a pediatric nurse?

Nikki Lawley: I was like 35. Yeah. So in ’95, I relocated to Buffalo, New York, from Fort Myers, Florida. And in Fort Myers, you practiced under physicians. So I gave shots, I assisted in procedures. I did everything under my physician’s license. When I came to New York State, I just assumed it would be the same way. And guess what? You need a license. So I ended up going to an adult education program. It was an accelerated LPN program, and I graduated with honors in this grade.

So I came into pediatric nursing sort of by accident. I ended up having to go to Buffalo Public Schools. Basically, it was an adult ed program to get my LPN. At first, when I worked in pediatrics, I actually worked in a general med office, and quickly I learned that the doctors in New York didn’t seem to have the same passion as the pediatrician I worked for in Florida. I ended up actually wanting to get into pharmaceutical sales right after I started nursing school. And they were like, “Your background’s great, it’s cool that you’re smart, that you’re a nurse, but you don’t have any outside sales experience. So we don’t [care] what you sell. Just get outside, sell stuff, and then we’ll hire you as a pharmaceutical rep.”

I ended up getting into HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning filter sales, and I started my own company. I really was passionate about indoor air quality, and I learned all about it, and it was pretty awesome. But then what ended up happening was, I guess 2001, the economy [was struggling]. So there went my career as an air filter person because it was all based on new construction and things like that. And then I ended up getting back into nursing in 2006, so from 1995 to 2006, I didn’t really do any nursing. But then I got back into it in 2006, and I actually was a casino dealer and pediatric nurse at the same time for about seven years.

Courtesy Nikki Lawley

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The Accident

HT: How did your life change forever in October 2016?

Lawley: In October of 2016, a child didn’t want a vaccine. That was not my first rodeo. This is not the first time I’ve had to retrain a kid for a vaccine. And what happened? It was a fluke, a one-second incident. I was behind him trying to restrain him so that my coworker could administer the vaccine, and he tucked his chin back and threw his head back into my forehead. I bounced off a wall. My life changed on the second day. I was just doing my job like any other day.

It was not planned at all. Like, it was crazy. And I mean, I’ve been kicked and punched by kids all throughout my career, this is not a new thing. Right? But it was how it happened, how it happened so suddenly. And then I didn’t get better. Brain injury is like an invisible illness. You don’t see it because you’re not like I was bleeding profusely out of my head. You can’t quantify pain. So going from being a respected nurse, I expected to have the same respect when I flipped sides of the table. You know, now I’m the patient going from nurse to patient, where I was always regarded as, you know, very credible, very professional, very efficient. 

Now I was treated like I was a faker or a drama seeker. And there was nothing further from the truth. I could not leave my house, the immediate impact was immediate pain, numbness and tingling all through my left side. I got a headache that day that I still have to this day. It’s this throbbing at the base of my skull and behind my eyes that every day I wake up with it, every day I go to sleep with it. It’s on average seven out of 10 on a pain scale. And I attribute my 10 to when I broke my leg in five places. So I mean, my 10 is pretty damn high as far as my pain threshold. So just knowing that and knowing how much it affects the daily aspect of my living every single day is just kind of crazy. To be told that there is nothing wrong with you and to have hundreds of different doctor visits, different therapy visits and different drugs prescribed was just unreal. 

It was through worker’s compensation in New York State, where you’re really fucked because you’re at the mercy of these doctors whose only goal is to get you out of the system. They had no interest in working with you. And this is a real struggle for me. I expect to be treated like I always have been treated when I go to a doctor, I’m a nurse, I’m respected. You know, and so I for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom it. I couldn’t understand it. And when I finally, you know, accepted that this isn’t just me, it’s like the whole medical system is [messed] up, you know? 

Again, I was in a very nice pediatric practice that had, like, 13 doctors and, you know, we did things very well and bright and things like that. So now it’s considered a number, to just be considered a chart, to just have no personal interaction and basically be told you’re a liar, was totally depersonalized me and like just make me this like “maybe I am just faking it, maybe it is really in my head. Maybe there’s really not something wrong with me, it’s not shown on the MRI. So it must be that’s just in my head.” 

But yet, I couldn’t count. I couldn’t count. I’m a former casino dealer. I could not go above 10. Even to this day, if I have the right cannabis, I can definitely do better. But it’s a real thing, and I hate it. There are lots of lingering effects that you don’t see. You don’t have any idea what would take someone to get out of bed in the morning, you know, just like and for me, that headache. But there are days that I struggle to just get out of bed. But still to this day, right, no matter how much cannabis I have in my system.

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Literal Lifesaver

HT: What made you discover and ultimately decide to utilize cannabis?

Lawley: I was planning my death in Las Vegas. My husband tried to cheer me up, knowing gambling always has been my love. He decided in December, two months after my injury, to say, “Let’s go to Vegas and have a vacation.” And I was like, “Dude, I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stab my eyes out and pour acid in them. There’s just no way I want to do this,” but he’s like, “We got to get out there. We got to get out of the house.” So I went.

My hotel room was only seven stories up, and we always stayed at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, which they have balconies in every suite. So I’m looking down over the balcony, you know, ready to end it. Get just ready to Peter Pan climb right up there and be done and I’m like, “Fuck me, the pool area is right here.” Only three stories below me is the pool area. I’m like, “Well, this is just freaking perfect. I can’t even do this right.”

I was super bummed out and at that same moment, a billboard came driving by in Las Vegas saying, “Get your medical marijuana card in Nevada today.” And I’m like, “Oh, great idea, Nikki, fry your brain on drugs some more.” I never would have dreamed that cannabis is medicine. That got me off the ledge, legitimately, and I ended up going to a place to get my medical card. My vital signs were already filled in on the form. 

I was able to go into a dispensary and I got products and tried different things and nothing worked until I smoked that first joint. When I smoked that joint, I was able to leave the room for the first time in three days. I was able to have a tiny bit of hope. And so from that moment forward, I knew there was something to the plant, but I didn’t understand it.

HT: What happened after you returned home from your vacation in Vegas?

Lawley: I came to New York, back home to Buffalo, and then I discovered, oh, [no], I can’t get medical marijuana here like I did in Nevada because I don’t have one of the five qualified conditions we had at the time, which were like severe wasting syndrome, stage four cancer, like really bad [conditions], and so I became hopeless again. I started going to more doctors, more drugs, more shit. Then all of a sudden a friend of mine from when I was in my daily days reached out and said, “Hey, if pot works for you in Vegas, we’ve got a killer program here in Canada. Why don’t you just come over here?” I mean, I live 15 minutes from the Canadian border. So I became a medical cannabis refugee in Canada. 

I started sampling different products. I used this great app that helped track my usage, so I could learn what worked and why and had all the back-end COAs from the dispensaries, or at times it was actually medical providers because utilization didn’t happen until mid-2018. People told me that we have this endocannabinoid system and I’m like, you’re so full of [it]. Like I don’t know what you’re smoking, but that is not true. I mean, I’m a nurse, we do not have whatever system you’re talking about.” It was just such a huge thing for me to totally change directions, but then I would have to come home without medicine. I could consume it in Canada, but I couldn’t bring it home to Buffalo, [New York]. 

I would get into that hopeless cycle again. For two years, Canada like literally was my refuge, and it gave me hope. I learned so much about the plant, and I started going to events in Canada. People started wanting to learn more about my story. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that everything really changed because there went my access to Canada because the Canadian border closed in March of 2020. So now I’m like, “Well, what do I do now?” New York didn’t have flower at that point, so all we had was ground flower, and it was totally shitty. We had no COAs — we still don’t have COAs. So I have no idea of what works and why. 

It became a total shit show. I literally had to learn what the legacy market was. And again, yes, the legacy market is cheaper, but I’m counting on testing cannabis with specific chemical profiles that are supposed to help me. And, you know, I finally narrowed that down, and then it was like I went backward. You know, most people come to the legacy and then go legal. I just went from legal and then went legacy. Now I’m back to legal. So it’s been quite a journey.

Courtesy Nikki Lawley

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Nikki and the Plant

HT: How have you taken this journey to develop your organization, Nikki and the Plant?

Lawley: So going from nurse to patient now to advocate has been a journey on its own. And I feel like my brain injury gave me true purpose and passion that I didn’t have before. I feel that the universe knew what it was doing all along. I just wasn’t ready for the whole bullshit that I actually went through as a patient, you know? So my purpose now is literally removing the stigma to the best of my ability, with as many people on as many platforms as I possibly can sharing my story. People can relate to it because there are so many components that others understand. When something happens to you, it’s a whole different thing than watching it on the news, right? 

When you see all these horrible shootings and things like that,  I bring it up because it’s always so fresh in our minds. I live 15 minutes from the Buffalo shooting and it’s like my hometown, you know? It’s like it’s not Chicago downtown. It’s not New York City. It’s not freaking Colombia. It’s right down the street. Not right down the street, but 15 minutes, right? I mean, that’s really close enough, right? And so I was really in the state where I took my health for granted. I took everything about it for granted. 

I truly believe that I was sort of invincible. You know, I mean, not invincible in a weird way, but I never expected to not be able to work. I never expected to not be able to just enjoy things I’ve always enjoyed, you know, we don’t know or understand what happens until we experience it ourselves or a loved one. Brain injury was a true eye-opener for me. 

It was a true setback, yet it’s sort of propelling me forward. I genuinely mean that. My call today was with this foundation called Realm of Caring Foundation. They’re out of Colorado and they help patients with not only medicine and dosing. They’ll talk to your doctor, and they give you free cannabis if you need it, like if you’re financially qualified. But they’re a total nonprofit, and what they’re doing is just so beautiful. And it just made me feel like my purpose is bigger. I went through this not just to survive, but to thrive. 

Nikki and the Plant is all about education and helping remove the stigma and helping to normalize the conversation, to not be scared of the plant. I was scared of the plant. I’m the first one to admit that. The whole “Just Say No” campaign was a real aspect of my life.

But we have the power to change that conversation. Right? More people we can educate and the more people we can change, and remove the stigma, the further ahead we’re going to be with this plant. 

I posted something on

, something along the lines of cannabis is my medicine, and some ignorant douche posted a comment that “Oh well, why didn’t you tell us about the psychosis it causes?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? What caused psychosis for me was Cymbalta.” 

Cannabis isn’t for everyone. And there are going to be contraindications in every case whether it’s pharmaceutical or whether it’s plant-based medicine. You know, I mean, there’s no magic pill. There’s no magic one-stop-shop for what’s ailing us. So we’re really trying to educate others is my true passion.

HT: What kinds of upcoming products can we expect from Nikki and the Plant?

Lawley: So I’m looking at launching a specific blend of terpene-based products that are, you know, THC, the whole plant. Products are built for patients by patients with data and science behind them. So the data I have is based on the application stream print that has like two million data points that basically will help determine what products we launch with first and what terpenes are dominant and what minor cannabinoids have shown effective in the three things that I still suffer from: chronic pain, anxiety, depression and cognitive function. So those are my three target areas of therapeutics that I’m kind of trying to help people with. 

And again, they don’t necessarily have to have a brain injury. I just happen to have one. So, you know, if it doesn’t work for me, I’m not saying it won’t work for you, but if I can’t sell a product that actually works for me and gives me great relief, how can I expect anyone else to buy it? 

So to me, efficacy and bioavailability and everything I know from a health care perspective are so critically important. Quality products, I mean. It’s not going to be pharmaceutical. And I understand that because I’m looking at pre-rolls and looking at mini pre-rolls with my polka dots and my red [branding].

I connect with cannabis. Connect the dots with cannabis or cannabis connects my dots is actually my tagline and you know, really looking at specific cultivars and not just any high THC product. I tried to get excited about hemp flower and smoking hemp flower, but honestly, it just gives me a headache. I mean, I don’t need the worst headache at this point in my life; I already live with one, and hemp just seems to make it more intense. I’m really looking for manufacturing partners, like a multistate operator, someone that is in multiple states, but it aligns with my values and aligns with patients. You know, it’s not about getting high for me. It’s about getting well. 

Lawley’s Message to Patients

HT: What would you say to someone who is considering trying medical cannabis but may be afraid to do so?

Lawley: It’s all about going low and slow, having the mindset of being willing to try different things, because there is no one-size-fits-all. There’s no one magic path that’s going to take you to the never, never land. You have to be willing to try, and your expectations have to be realistic. The other thing is to know what you’re treating. Like if you had three things that are bothering you the most. Figure out what those three things are symptom-wise, not condition-wise. People have fibromyalgia. What symptom of that fibromyalgia is debilitating to you? What symptom of my traumatic brain injury is the ability to me that I need relief from that there’s not a cure for. 

Cannabis is symptom management and quality of life management. But most likely it’s not going to be a cure. Yes, some cancers can be cured by cannabis, 100 percent. Seizures can be stopped in their tracks with cannabis. Absolutely. But your expectations have to be very realistic. We’re a society now that is expecting instant gratification. So with cannabis, you have to realize there are many steps. I’ve sampled close to 4,500 different products, and over 3,000 strains. So that’s a lot of products, right? 

I love trying new products to see what’s going to work best. So what I do is I have a product that I know has worked great, right? So every other product kind of gets compared against the top that gave me relief, right? I have it documented. And, you know, that’s why journaling your experience is so important, whether it’s an app, whether it’s on paper. Initially, you might only have a strain name. You might not have a COA or understand how to even read a COA or what any of the other components mean. 

But starting somewhere, you know, like writing it down and saying, “Okay, so my pain right now is at an eight. If I smoked cannabis, a half-hour later, my pain goes down to six, and I smoke a little more. Oh, well, I got it down to a four now.” You know, and being willing to document that journey and really take note of how you’re feeling because if you’re not able to figure out what you’re treating, you’re never going to succeed. 

If you can’t figure out how you feel, you’re never going to have success. If you’re anxious going into a call or something and you smoke, when you finish that call, you’ll know did that product work or was I a space case in that call, you know? And there’s like it’s a real thing. So it’s just knowing your own body and educating yourself. So there’s no shortage of resources online, but going to the right resources is a key thing. So one of my favorite places to go is the

website. A book that I love more than life itself is called by Dr. Ruth Fisher. That book is what I reference all the time when people ask me a specific question about a specific cannabinoid because I just can’t remember them all. So sometimes I just need that reference piece. And her book is always there for me with perfect on-point data. So I would highly, highly recommend purchasing. And I don’t get any commission. I have nothing to do with this. For me, it’s what worked. 

Going to events, and talking to your doctor, ideally, one that is cannabis friendly is another big part of it. You know, again, your state hopefully has resources that you can tap into, but just be wary. If it sounds too good to be true, it might be. There’s not going to be a product that’s going to cure you. It’s just about defying your expectations and realizing how to do it right. 

And for me, as I said, I’ve sampled so many products and if you sample too many in one day, how are you going to really know what worked and what didn’t? So one of the things I like to do is stack dosing. So for someone that can use edibles, for instance or tinctures, smoking is going to be your quickest onset, but like tinctures and edibles, they have to go through your liver, they have to be processed, and it’s a slower onset. 

But if you get instant relief when you get up in the morning from smoking, that’s okay. Euphoria is a side effect, and it is not a bad side effect. Sleepy is not a bad side effect, provided you’re not having to go to work or something like that. Baby steps, but educate. Learn what cannabis is, and learn that there is so much more to the plant than just THC and CBD.

HT: Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

Lawley: I just think we need to normalize conversation and share stories. You know, patient stories matter, and patient experiences matter. And if you’re a company that doesn’t have patients on your board, if you’re a tech company trying to create an app and you don’t have a patient actually using that app, how do you know what it’s doing? If you’re designing products in a lab and you don’t have patients giving their feedback on them, how is that okay? 

Patients are the reason you’re doing what you’re doing from a medical cannabis perspective. So how can we not forget them? Despite everything that’s saying “fuck the patients, we just want to get high,” right? I just really want to make a difference and give people hope and let them know that they’re not alone. And we all have a story and we all can make a difference.

Learn more about Nikki Lawley’s organization by visiting

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Hannah (Izer) Vysoky

About The Author

Hannah (Izer) Vysoky

HIGH THERE MISSION

WE’RE A CREATIVE COMMUNITY — EXPLORING THE SCIENCE, CRAFT, AND CULTURE OF CANNABIS.
WE BELIEVE THAT WE HAVE A COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY TOWARDS ERADICATING THE STIGMA, MISINFORMATION, AND INEQUITIES SURROUNDING THIS PLANT, SO WE CAN UNLOCK ITS TRUE POTENTIAL FOR ALL.

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