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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: 3 / 3)

Former Surgeon General of the United States

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  Antonia Novello

What does the American Dream mean to you?

Antonia Novello: To make it by making sure that you have all the things that are American -- education, good communication, empathy for people. For women, I truly believe a little mixture of both feminism and femininity, utilizing it to the best of your ability. But most importantly, credibility, dignity, fortitude and character. Take a stand. But, more importantly, believe that it's there for you if you work at it. I always tell kids four things. The first one is:

If you do not know where you're going, you are already there. The second thing is the world owes you nothing. To believe that the world will get you everything you want because you're a good kid and you studied is like believing that a bull is not going to hit you because you're a vegetarian. So, you must be able to do good. The third one is take a stand and believe in something. And those were the words of Goethe. Goethe said, "The hottest space in hell will be saved for those that during the time of conflict decided to stay neutral." So take a stand. But the most important one is number four, which is what has been said many times by some members of the academy. Service is the rent you pay for living, and that service is what sets you apart. Service to God, to the country, to the community, and to yourself. But most importantly, service. So, when you do all those four, absolutely the American dream will be found, and you will be part of it.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

What book or books have meant a lot to you?

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Antonia Novello: One is Love in the Time of Cholera.. Every Latin is a romanticist, but especially when it has something that you gain from it. I love autobiographies. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If you look into that book, you absolutely have the values which are best for you. Stand in line, wait your turn, wash your hands, say thank you. You would not believe how much those little things help you in your life when you put them into action.

And again, the element of surprise, I love anything that has to do with patriotism. I think that's very important when you're a woman, because I don't believe honor is gender-specific. I love this business of uniforms and medals and awards. Colin Powell gave me the Legion of Merit Medal when I was the Surgeon General. That is a uniform service medal that is not usually given to the public health service, but he gave it to me.

What do you think have been the most exciting moments of your career?

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Antonia Novello: There are so many. When I was Surgeon General and everybody in my little town was so happy for me. You know one of the things that makes it great? To this day, when I go to Puerto Rico and I walk down the street, grandmothers stop and hug me, they kiss me, they thank me, and they say, "I want my granddaughter to be like you." Not all of us are born to be role models and God knows I never intended to be one. But, when you are in a position like the Surgeon General, and through your actions, one human being can be good or feel that they can offer something and be noticed for their actions, then you absolutely have done something worthwhile. People still feel that I represented them well and their kids should be like me. If that ever becomes a reality in the long term, then I all the chicken dinners, all the moments of despair, and all the stress were worthwhile. Somebody benefited because I existed.

What made this office so exciting for you?

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Antonia Novello: One of the things about the Surgeon General's office that is unique, is that you have nothing but the pulpit. Therefore, you must always be well informed, and motivated to get the message out. But the beauty is that what you say has an impact. Therefore, you must be credible. I believe that the American public is tired of being told you must do this, you must do that. I think the time has come to tell them what is there and let them do the best that they can with the information at hand. But in the quest of preventing, let's not be preachy, because human nature has a way of turning off. I always felt that it was better to tell them what was at stake and tell them what the alternatives were, and just watch them make the choice. But never tell them "I know better than you," because when you do that, eventually you will lose the power.

So, the Surgeon General has this wonderful pulpit. Once you're well informed, you can decide what to tell, and then watch them grow. You have no underlying power, no authority except moral authority. And, boy does that make it harder, because you must be very, very sure of what you say and compound it with your knowledge. People quote you, and therefore you end up sleeping with tons of books and tons of data.

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
There's one thing I always find very interesting: this world is biotechnology-oriented. Somewhere along the way, we are forgetting that we must be there for the people behind the numbers and not so much for the numbers alone. How can we make the kids be better when we forget that the statistic is a face? Give them options. Give them hope. For every door you close, you must open a window. Otherwise, you're telling people what they already did wrong rather than saying it's never too late. You must also ask them to take a little responsibility, and meet you halfway, but no preaching. People are tired of being told what to do without giving them options. You have to do both. That was part of my job. What's wrong? What can you do? How can I help? Let's meet in the middle and do it with credibility and empathy, a lot of empathy.

Speaking of statistics, where do you see the AIDS crisis going in the next 25 or 50 years?

Antonia Novello: As long as we are denying it, we're going to be in really bad shape. I'm worried about everyone, but I am very worried about the adolescents and the women, because society is giving them mixed messages. When you're an adolescent and the disease takes ten years and you're 13, how can you feel that can happen to you? Then, you are denying that 54 percent of the adolescents of the country are sexually active by the time they're 18.

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Adolescents have three things that are truly against them. The world is not consent-proof for the ones below 18. Your confidentiality is also at stake, because your insurance depends on your parents and your parents get the bill when you have your AIDS test. Another thing is that the system of care for the adolescent is nonexistent. It is very hard for a pediatrician to answer the questions of the day, because the child has grown and wants to do things we never thought they would. So, between your confidentiality and your consent and the way in which medicine takes care of adolescents, there are three things that are impinging on them.

The number for adolescent AIDS that people are paying attention to is only the number of cases between the ages of 13 and 19, which is less than 3,000 cases. But it can take ten years to incubate. Thirteen plus ten is 23 and 13 plus 14 is 24 and so on. Between the ages of 23 and 30, there are 48,000 cases of AIDS. If you subtract ten, they must gave gotten infected when they were adolescents.

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
So, in the presence of that, my other biggest worry is Spring break. All you need is one infected adolescent that is sexually active with partners that he or she does not know, without responsibility, in a milieu where they will not remember what happened ten years from now. If you can't remember what you ate last week, how can you remember what you did ten years ago? When we find them, and we do the test at their request, 54 percent of adolescents do not return for the test result. Where is the trust? Did they lose it from me or did they lose it from the system? In the presence of that, I worry about adolescents. When you prevent, you will do better. But the message of just giving you a condom for condom's sake, I don't find that is very good public health. If you are going to advocate for the condom, then give them the means to obtain it. Give them the instructions to use it, and give them the responsibility to which it is entitled. In the absence of that, you are just giving an instrument that happens to be of latex. That makes no impact on an adolescent who already feels invincible.

We have to be more and more respectful of adolescents without thinking that, because they are young, you cannot talk to them at the level of an adult. They are clamoring for respect, but also for true information. I spoke to a group of adolescents once in an AIDS symposium, and they taught me something. They said, "Dr. Novello, the epidemic has been here for twelve years, and we've lived. I'm only 16 and I've lived with it almost all my life. So, don't tell me anything about AIDS when all you're telling me is that I'm going to die. Please see it through my eyes rather than through yours. I have nothing to compare it with." We have to start dealing with them as people who need to know serious, accurate, straightforward information. They need all the attention. So, AIDS worries me for the women, for the children and for the adolescents. But it's not all lost, because every day we do something else that is going to at least delay death.

One last question. Regardless of what field someone chooses, be it medicine or art or paleontology, what personal characteristics are most important in your view for success?

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Antonia Novello: I believe that fortitude is key. More than anything, be consistent. Go at it. Go at it. Go at it. There will be friends that will not want you to do your best. There will be life episodes that will obscure you. I would say, believe that you can, but plan. It will not fall in your lap. Plan. And once you've got it, be credible, be consistent and be responsible. It is absolutely crucial. And, when you have the opportunity and you're done, then you must bring somebody else up with you. Because when you're on top, and you forget that some others are just clamoring to join you, you will fall, and when you fall, you will be alone.

Be consistent. Be credible. Have fortitude. Have empathy for the ones who are not in your same position, but whatever you do, your credibility and your dignity will not be hampered. That's all you have left. You can do it, but you must make sure that you plan for it. It sounds ludicrous, but in the new era, everyone will come from a great university. The system will set you apart when you have done something that is different, and that is going to be community and people involvement. In the presence of those two, with all the things that you have from your family and from your upbringing, you will be successful. And when you succeed, don't forget the responsibility of making somebody else succeed with you.

Thank you, Dr. Novello.

You're welcome.

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