It was the apex of her medical career.
Earning the prestigious title of chief resident of orthopaedic surgery, a field that sees few Black women, Dr. Bonnie Simpson Mason would finally reap the benefits of the grueling 100-plus weekly resident hours she’d put in the last five years.
For one of her first tasks as chief in her last year of residency, Mason performed a total hip replacement. It was an exciting time.
“This was the year where I would get to operate maximally and then be one of the leaders within the department,” Mason explained.
The surgery was a success; however, she left the operating room with a searing pain in her right shoulder. Assuming she overexerted herself during surgery, she ignored the issue.
But then, the shooting pain migrated from her right shoulder to her left hip.
“These types of migrating pains just continued to increase in frequency,” the Atlanta native recalled, “ and finally one of my co-residents, one of my best friends, said, ‘Bonnie, clearly something is going on. You need to be seen.’”
She soon made her way to a rheumatologist, who diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues and joints.
According to the physician, Mason, who was 30 at the time, was under the right amount of stress – along with being the right age, sex and race – to trigger the condition. To her knowledge, the disease didn’t run in her family.
“At that point, I had already received a very prestigious hand fellowship, which is additional training in hand surgery at Columbia University,” Mason said. “But once I received this diagnosis, and my physician began aggressively treating me, it became clear that actually we couldn’t get it under control and within a couple of months, I had to relinquish my hand fellowship position.”