October

Nicki Lawson, shown here at the nurses’ station on the fourth floor of the Wiser Hospital for Women and Infants, is still working, PRN, as a nurse practitioner in hospital medicine while pursuing her medical degree. Melanie Thortis/ UMMC Communications
Nicki Lawson, shown here at the nurses’ station on the fourth floor of the Wiser Hospital for Women and Infants, is still working, PRN, as a nurse practitioner in hospital medicine while pursuing her medical degree.
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‘He saw something in me’: NP shifts to MD in the making

Published on Monday, October 10, 2022

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

Nicki Lawson has always wanted to take care of people the way she would take care of her own family; for her, that meant being a nurse.

“Nurses were the nurturing ones,” said Lawson, a nurse practitioner. “Not the doctors.”

But, over the years, that opinion of doctors changed. Which is just one of the reasons she’s going to be one.

Now a first-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Lawson reached that destination after hacking through a thicket of doubts and questions, many of them about the things that separate nurses from doctors – at least in some people’s minds.

Could she make the grades in medical school? Would she be an outsider? Would the nursing world consider her a turncoat? And, not least of all: Would, her husband, James, think she would, or could, go through with it?

“Then one morning,” she said, “I woke up and looked at my phone. It said: ‘Lawson, M.D.’ James had changed my screen saver.”

One by one, the other questions are being answered to her satisfaction as well. But there has never been a question in her mind that medical school would be hard.

As Lawson pursues her MD, “NP” still remains beside her name. She still works as a nurse practitioner, on a basis termed PRN, or “as necessary.” Sometimes working is a mercy compared to studying, she said.

“At this point, it’s almost like a break. Medical school is challenging. But it’s worth it.”

Lawson's Facebook post on the importance of vaccinations was featured in a July VC Notes by Dr. LouAnn Woodward, left. Joe Ellis/ UMMC Communications
Nicki Lawson's Facebook post on the importance of vaccinations was featured in a July VC Notes by Dr. LouAnn Woodward, left.

You may know Lawson already. In her July 23, 2021 VC Notes, Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, included a Facebook post urging others to get the COVID-19 vaccination. Lawson wrote it, partly in “frustration,” she says now.

“That was from being criticized by people not in the trenches who had no idea of the exposure health care workers were facing. It was also because we were seeing patients die left and right, and we had a solution.”

Lawson has wanted to find answers for patients since kindergarten. “My mom still has some of my papers from then,” she said. “I wrote on one of them that I wanted to be a nurse.”

She was Nicki Relan then, growing up mostly in Diamondhead. Her mom, Shelley Relan, worked in a doctor’s office when Nicki was little, then later in human resources for a nursing home; that’s where Nicki, as a teenager, found her first job, and a heart for taking care of people much older than her, dispensing medically-sound doses of crossword puzzles and Bingo.

Nick Lawson, foreground, is one of more than 160 first-year students welcomed to the School of Medicine in August. Lindsay McMurtray/ Communications and Marketing
Lawson, foreground, is one of more than 160 first-year students welcomed to the School of Medicine in August.

“I was an activity aide,” she said.

The rewards of that job made a future as a nurse even more irresistible. Not rewarding, but persuasive, was her grandmother’s illness. Lynn Holden had Alzheimer’s disease, and Lawson wanted to help take care of her. Eventually, she did. “I helped when I could,” she said, “and I was there when she passed.”

By then, Lawson had been a nurse for six years and a nurse practitioner for three. She earned her BS in nursing in 2013 at the University of Southern Mississippi. Three years later, she become a nurse practitioner after receiving her master’s degree from the place that lured her to Jackson: UMMC.

“Fun fact: When I graduated from nursing school, I knew I wanted to be in an academic medical center, where people are always learning,” she said. “So, I moved here without a job.”

Nicki Lawson, center, and Layne Boykin, right, are among the medical students attending a student breakfast in September with Dr. Loretta Jackson-Williams, left, vice dean for medical education and professor of emergency medicine, and Dr. LouAnn Woodward, second from right, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. Joe Ellis/ UMMC Communications
Lawson, center, and Layne Boykin, right, are among the medical students attending a student breakfast in September with Dr. Loretta Jackson-Williams, left, vice dean for medical education and professor of emergency medicine, and Woodward, second from left, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.

She did find one, in a nursing home in Clinton, as she pursued a place at UMMC. She had met James Lawson already; they’ve been married six years now and are bringing up three-year-old son, Barrett, in Gluckstadt.

Her son and the notion that she might become a doctor were born around the same time. Physicians, she figured, had a lot of job security.

“But it was also watching them work, those who want to teach and who are kind and considerate,” she said. “That’s how I want to do things.”

In medical practice and in medical school, her years as a nurse would serve her well, she thought. “I know things the patients’ families felt or wanted to know after the physician left the room. And I can put a face to the disease.”

But getting into medical school was a different matter, she said. “I didn’t think I was of that caliber, even though I had good grades in nursing school.”

About that, it was also a doctor who helped change her mind. “He saw something in me I didn’t see for a long time,” Lawson said.

Pradeep Bathina
Bathina

This is what Dr. Pradeep Bathina saw: “How she took care of a patient – so detail-oriented and curious about the diagnosis and treatment,” said Bathina, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Hospital Medicine at UMMC.

“I told her she would be an excellent doctor.” But Bathina had an ace up his white coat’s sleeve.

“I thought that if Jazmyn can do it, Nicki can do it,” Bathina said.

Now an emergency medicine resident at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Dr. Jazmyn Shaw, is married, has two children and was, for many years, a nurse. Bathina asked Lawson to contact her.

“He couldn’t have put me in touch with a better person,” Lawson said.

When they spoke, Shaw was an emergency room nurse, working while going to medical school at UMMC. “I told Nicki I had the same fears and worries she had,” said Shaw, a 2021 medical school graduate.

“I said, ‘I know this is really scary, but if it’s something you want to do, you can absolutely do it. If you work hard, you’ll wink and then you’ll be out of medical school.’

“I’ve had that same conversation with a lot of people, but only a few have taken me up on that challenge. She’s awesome.”

It took some scrambling, with no help from the pandemic, for Lawson to take some science courses she needed to get into medical school. She also had to take the MCAT, the entrance exam.

More worrisome to her, though, was what her coworkers might say. “Some health care workers fall into the nurses vs. doctors trap,” she said. “It becomes a battleground. I wondered if nurses would think I’m a traitor. But they were very excited.”

Among them was Katie Smith, another nurse practitioner, who has no doubt her friend will become a doctor, and a good one.

“Nicki is one of the smartest people I know,” Smith said. “If there’s a problem, she will solve it herself. She knows things about patients that most physicians don’t know because they don’t spend 12 hours a day on the nursing floor. And her heart is pure gold.

“She’s going to reach every goal she sets. I believe she wants to set a good example for her son, to let him know that nothing is out of reach for him. Shoot for the stars.”

Smith has her friend pegged. “Having a child made me think: ‘If I don’t do this, then he’ll think one day that he can’t do it, whatever it is,’” Lawson said.

“I want him to know that if there’s a time when he wants a change, it would be fine. And he would have no regrets later on.”