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If you like Antonia Novello's story, you might also like:
Gertrude Elion,
Paul Farmer,
Anthony Romero,
Desmond Tutu,
Antonio Villaraigosa
and Andrew Weil

Antonia Novello also appears in the videos:
The Democratic Process

The Health of America: Individual Responsibility

Changing Lanes

A Leader of Character

Antonia Novello can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Antonia Novello in the Achievement Curriculum section:

Related Links:
Office of the Surgeon General
National Women's Hall of Fame
Protect the Truth

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Antonia Novello
Antonia Novello
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Antonia Novello Interview (page: 2 / 3)

Former Surgeon General of the United States

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  Antonia Novello

Who or what inspired you to believe in yourself this way?

Antonia Novello: My mother was key. My father had died. My mother remarried, but she always felt "These are my children, and therefore they are my responsibility." I still have the same stepfather, but my mother is the center. To this day, she is still the principal of the same school. She is 72 years old and still has a keen mind. Even when I was a kid, Mommy was a teachers with two years of college that became four years of college, that then became two master's degrees. So I always saw somebody studying.

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
I remember the time I said, "Mommy, I have to take my board of pediatrics exam. Do you think it's necessary since I work for the government?" And she said, "Absolutely." I said, "Why?" She said, "Because someday their absence will be used not to give you the job that you deserve. So be prepared, even if you never use it."

She was always very keen in education without pushing. I finished college and entered medical school in '65. The only time that they could do the corrective surgery was in that first semester of my first year of medical school. So, I had to leave to get the surgery done at the Mayo Clinic in October, come back in December and reintegrate myself with the new class of '66. It was getting very hard in my first year of medical school because that semester was interrupted.

I told Mommy, "I'm quitting. It's getting hard to plug the microscope and plug the heating pad." She said, "I'll go with you and we quit together." At that moment, I said, "Oh, no. I'm not quitting." If Mommy would have been the one who said, "No you won't," I would have. But, she always felt, "You must be very sick to want to quit now. You want it? We go."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Something else I learned at that time is that sometimes people want you to do things for them rather than for you. A teacher of mine at that time wanted me to have the most drastic operation that a human being could have at the age of 20. Without any explanation whatsoever, she said, "I want you to have a colostomy." I said, "For how long?" She said, "For life." I would have had a bag attached to my body all my life, with a potential smell every time I had to change the bag. There are many devices now that attach better to the body, and take the smell away. But, at that time, 1966, we were just beginning to think of these things. When you're 20 and you are not the ugliest thing that anyone has seen, to believe that forever I had to have another secret... it was not the best thing that could have happened to me. I said, "I'm 20 and you want to do a colostomy for life. Don't take it lightly. It's my body. It's my life. Give me some hope." She didn't. She said she had also been a sick medical student and look at her now.

(My teacher) called my mother and despite of the fact that I was 20, she called my mother to tell her, "I want her to have surgery." And, my mother said, "She's 20. She can speak for herself. Do you want it?" I said, "Mommy, if I have to have that surgery without any explanation or no limitation, I think I'd rather die." And, Mommy said, "It is your body and you will take care of it they way you want to." And that was the end of it. But, it was painful because people make decisions for you in your benefit without asking you what is good for you.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

My mother said, "It's your body. It's your decision." I said, "No. If I was like this for 18 years, I can be like this for life." Once again, my mother helped me make the decision. In that sense, she was really my greatest role model.

What was her reaction when you were named Surgeon General of the United States?

Antonia Novello: As a matter of fact, my mother did not come to my hearing because she was afraid that if I answered one question wrong and I was not selected, she was going to have a heart attack. So she stayed home and watched it on C-SPAN.

How about you? How did you react when you first heard about it?

Antonia Novello: I almost died of shock because life has made us believe that you must be a politician to succeed in government life. Life has made you believe that you have to have connections, that you must be at the right place at the right time and have the right friends. None of those things happened to me. This is why, when the call came, I thought it was a joke and I almost didn't answer it. It was the Assistant Secretary of Health who said, "You have been suggested to us as a possible chief of one agency of the public health," which had never been a woman.

When the call came, I said, "But I am not interested. I'm not looking for a job." He said, "Well, the Secretary of Health will call you, and you have an appointment on Monday." Grudgingly, I went and I thought I knew the agency, so I took the budget, the people who work in it, the mission, and I read it over the weekend because, I was going to tell him no. But the thing that I learned, too -- even when you say no, be prepared for them to want you because you're good.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

When I went to the interview and the Secretary of Health said, "Do you know why you're here?," I assumed I did. I said, "More or less." He said, "Well, I want to offer you the job of the Surgeon General of the United States." I remember I should have been very, very dainty and very, very proper to say, "Really?" but I didn't. I was in such a state of shock that I said, "What?!" And then, I realized, "My God, this is the biggest interview of my life and I blew it on my expression."

Dr. Everett Koop had been my boss for eight years and I knew exactly what this job was. When I had an interview with Dr. Koop, I was impressed with the job. And you mean to tell me that me, Toni Novello, the little kid from Puerto Rico who has been in the National Institutes of Health all her life has been picked? Then I got upset.

I said: Are you calling me to be the Surgeon General because I can do the job or because I'm Puerto Rican and I'm female? "I will not be your quota. Where did you find me, now, after twelve years doing my same job? Why?" And, I remembered, the Secretary at that time was African American. And he said, "I have read your curriculum and I can see that you can do it. I don't need quotas, because I am myself a minority." That's when I said, "Okay. Let's keep going on the interview."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Even at that moment, I could have blown it. I was not about to forfeit all the things that I had done for a job that would count me as a number in a minority group rather than somebody who happens to be minority that can do the job.

What is it about you that made you stand out as a candidate for this job?

Antonia Novello: I think that one has to be realistic. The time was right for a woman and the time was right for a minority. But I also believe that they needed someone who knew AIDS, and at that time, I had just finished a report on AIDS. I truly believe that they needed someone who could show the American dream, all of those things together. I think the time was right for someone who was kind of conservative, but with common sense. I think I was selected for all those things together. It was a package deal. Then, I had to prove that it can be done. Again, the element of surprise.

When the President did the whole swearing in, I remember I said, "Mr. President, thank you very much for bringing West Side Story to the West Wing." I thought that said it all, because when you're Puerto Rican, when you're a minority kid, when you're a kid from an island this little, you can't dream that the American dream is going to include you. And, most importantly, when the stereotype of being a Hispanic, and specifically of Puerto Rican descent, it's not intended for you to succeed. I had to do it better. I had to do it better.

Something else I always tell the kids:

"When the time comes to be the best, do it. But, when the time comes to step down from being the best, do it better, because when you are a small group, they expect you to come down fighting." And, again, element of surprise -- come down with dignity and don't let anyone confuse dignity with weakness because people will remember more that minute of dignity than those three and a half years of good work, because on your shoulders are all of those that want to be you and they want you to do good for them. And boy, is it hard not to fight, but it's harder to do what is right.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Why am I making more speeches now than when I was Surgeon General? Why do I keep being invited by commencements galore? For that minute of dignity, backed up by the three and-a-half years of knowledge, and more importantly, because people want you to do good.

The American dream continues because every time that I speak, somebody believes that they can be me. Little kid, little island, a good pushy mother we all have, almost a mother that took care of you alone. Twenty-five percent of our population do that, single mothers taking care of their kids. But, more important, not rich, not poor -- normal American citizen making it to the top without political connections. Now the kids want to be somebody. And when they look at the Surgeon General of 1990, it's feasibly possible that they can be me. Not for what I have accomplished, but because of the life that I lived that is equal to so many out there. And I'm someone that they can touch and say, "Hey, she did it. Absolutely. I can too."

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

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This page last revised on Oct 09, 2006 16:47 EST
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