In the first of a double feature, we’re taking a look at veterans who are suffering with pain or psychiatric disorders, and whose needs are not being met by traditional medication.
In this first part, we caught up with Alex*, one of our patients and a former combat patrol medic who served in Afghanistan. He talks to us about his pain and PTSD conditions, and why veterans like himself benefit from medical cannabis treatment instead of seeking opioid treatment, which he found to be ineffective.
“Before I tried the treatment, I used to go to hospital every three weeks. Now I go every three to five months. My friends and family have noticed a real difference. I was previously feeling like a burden on them. My kids have also noticed a difference, because the drowsy side effects of the painkillers I was on are gone.”
Alex also opens up about how medical cannabis has impacted his relationships with his family and how unhappy he was on traditional medication.
*Alex’s name has been changed at the request of the interviewee
Which part of the Armed Forces did you serve in and where?
I left school to go to an army college at the age of 16 and I was in the army for over five years until I reached 21.
I spent seven months in Afghanistan and was on rotation in Camp Bastion. I was living at different checkpoints in Afghanistan houses, with no WiFi or running water.
I was a combat patrol medic in Afghanistan. I treated wounded soldiers, patched up the casualties, and got them back to the hospital. I also spent six months in Canada as a medic.
My worst casualty was a triple amputee who stepped on an explosive device. I was 10 feet away and managed to patch him up. He’s alive, back in the UK, and he’s a rock climber now raising money for charity.
How did your pain and PTSD conditions arise?
In 2011, I came back from my tour in Afghanistan and was in a car crash, where a car impacted me at 90 mph and damaged my shoulder joint. This led to a rare condition which meant my shoulder continually dislocates.
I had to have nerves removed to stop it popping out of the joint. I also developed PTSD at the same time, which arose from a combination of things. I felt vulnerable when I came back to the UK. I lost my career due to the accident which led to things spiralling.
I was medically discharged from the army and put on long-term sick leave for 13 months whilst awaiting medical discharge. I then registered on a pilot scheme with the Veterans First organisation in Colchester, an initiative in Essex, and have been seeing them for two years.
Where and when did you first hear of medical cannabis as a treatment?
I researched online and I saw a neurologist in London. He recommended I look into medical cannabis. He said the cannabis would help me to cut back on the amount of controlled drugs I was taking. Otherwise, I would have to have my shoulder reset every four weeks.
I was on morphine, fentanyl patches, oxycodone, diazepam, muscle relaxants, and other damaging medications usually prescribed for seizures but, to be honest, they just didn’t work.
Over time I developed allergies to the multiple drugs I was on and reacted badly to them. I didn’t want them but the doctors just prescribed more and more – they made me feel sick and worst of all, they didn’t take away the pain.
Which doctor are you currently seeing?
I am seeing Dr Sunny Nayee at The Medical Cannabis Clinics (TMCC) which I access through Project Twenty21. I have been on the programme since it first started in 2020. I was on the waiting list and received the first batch of medication that came through.
Dr Sunny prescribed the CBD oil which came quickly whereas the flower took a little longer to arrive. I find the flower works a lot better for me. Dr Sunny started me on one type and we tried another type the next time. I’m now on a blended strain. After talking things through with him, I finished the oil and am now just on the flower.
What is the impact that medical cannabis has made upon your condition and the quality of your life?
It has genuinely made a major difference to my life and has hit the mark where other medications simply didn’t. I can now concentrate, I can function, and I’m no longer slurring my words.
Now I hardly require any hospitalisation whereas before I tried the treatment, I used to go to hospital every three weeks. Now I go every three to five months.
My friends and family have noticed a real difference. I was previously feeling like a burden on them. My kids have also noticed a difference, because the drowsy side effects of the painkillers I was on are gone.
Do your friends or family know about your treatment and what do they think?
My family is very supportive. The response from other healthcare professionals has also been really positive, mostly because I’m not on so many painkillers. When I tell other doctors, they are a little surprised as they didn’t know that medical cannabis was an option. One doctor was a bit disapproving but I think most see it now just like any other medication. To be honest, I’ve found that most people are open-minded about it now.
How has the treatment affected your mental state of mind and PTSD?
It mellows me out and I don’t get as stressed as much. On medical cannabis I can think more clearly and I can process things better. I never used it recreationally before; in fact, I have always been very anti-drugs and, there was always a zero-tolerance attitude in military.
When I first heard about medical cannabis I thought ‘you have to be kidding me!’, but I’ve since discovered that there are so many benefits to it.
I think it works well and my family have noticed the difference. I seem such a different person now – in a good way. For the last ten years, I was constantly up and down, happy then sad, and I was very reactionary to events, I’m pleased to say that’s changed.
I don’t openly disclose that I use medical cannabis, but it has been a lifesaver for me. I genuinely feel like I have my life back.
With a complex mix of symptoms, it can be really difficult to identify the causes of conditions impacting veterans, which can lead to their needs being ignored or unmet by traditional medication.
Look out for the next instalment of our veterans spotlight coming in the next couple of weeks.