Bonnie Simpson Mason, MD, faces the conference room in a power pose, hands on hips, and the medical students rise from their seats to copy her stance. Poised and confident, genial but firm, she shares her tips for success: “Be an initiator. Be a problem-solver. Be resourceful. Be that person who’s there early, who stays late, who’s always enthusiastic.”
Dr. Mason herself is all of that. Those attributes helped her become an orthopedic surgeon – an African American woman in a highly competitive, male-dominated field. And when rheumatoid arthritis (RA) made it too difficult to continue, those qualities helped her continue to succeed in another career. Dr. Mason, 48, runs Nth Dimensions, a nonprofit organization she created to provide mentoring, scholarships and research opportunities for women and minority students seeking to enter competitive medical and surgical specialties.
She also helps physicians learn the business of medicine through her company, Beyond the Exam Room, and is a visiting professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky. Her husband, Thomas Mason, MD – the chief medical officer in health information technology with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – is a steadfast support as she balances a demanding work schedule with family life (they have two preteen sons) and dealing with RA.
Reconstructing a Career
As she pursued a residency in orthopedic surgery, Dr. Mason held herself to the standards and expectations she now imparts to her students – being prepared, always learning and networking. She became one of only two women in an orthopedic surgery residency at Howard University in Washington, D.C. And when she became chief resident, she was determined not to show signs of weakness, even when she began to feel ill.
She was very active and, like other residents, she worked 100 to 120 hours a week, so when she developed pain in her feet, she simply switched from heels to flats. But then came gastrointestinal upset with intense cramping. One day in her fourth year of residency, she had searing pain in her shoulder, which she chalked up to performing a total hip replacement. She blamed pain in her hip to climbing too many stairs. But other symptoms followed: weakness, fatigue and a burning sensation in her hands. A concerned friend insisted she go to the emergency room, where she was referred to a rheumatologist who diagnosed RA. “He told me I had the most intense case of rheumatoid arthritis that he had ever seen,” Dr. Mason says.
Eventually, she gained control of her RA with corticosteroids and disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. (She still struggles with fatigue, but her RA is well-controlled and she keeps herself healthy with daily exercise, stress management, naps, lots of juiced vegetables and listening to her body.)
Keeping the Faith
At the end of her residency, Dr. Mason won a prestigious hand surgery fellowship at Columbia University, which she had to turn down due to RA. She performed surgery for three years before pain in her right elbow became too intense; she can’t fully extend that arm.
Losing her career as a surgeon was a blow. “I voluntarily sought out therapy from a mental health perspective because it was a grieving process.” Still, she adds, “Never once did I doubt or question or say to myself that I went through all this orthopedic training for nothing. I knew there had to be a bigger reason why.”
She poured her energy into Nth Dimensions, which introduces women and minority high school and college students to medical specialties in which they are under-represented, including orthopedics, radiology, dermatology and physical therapy. It also runs a summer internship that teams select medical students with volunteer physicians in those specialties around the country.
In 2015, Dr. Mason received the Diversity Award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. She’s working now to build an endowment to ensure Nth Dimensions’ future and its impact.
For her, RA turned out to be enabling, not disabling. “I started in my career thinking I was going to be a connector of bones, but now I’m a connector of people with the resources, networks, tools and information they need to meet their dreams and goals,” she says. “If I had been in the operating room, I would not have been able to impact the lives of women and minority students like me.” —By MICHELE COHEN MARILL
Dr. Mason’s Healthy Habits
Bonnie Mason takes time throughout her day for healthy habits that help control her RA symptoms.
MORNING: She wakes around 5 a.m. and reads scripture. After her sons go to school, she takes a 2-mile walk and stretches. For breakfast, she juices kale, spinach and beets with apple and berries.
MIDDAY: Dr. Mason reserves time for an afternoon nap to recharge. She’s also working toward a plant-based diet and avoids carbs and sugar.
EVENING: Some days she works out with her kids, with low-impact aerobics and light weights. Before bed, she writes notes of gratitude and spirituality in a journal.