Antonia's mother, a school teacher and later high school principal, stressed the importance of education from an early age. Antonia was precocious, and graduated from high school at age 15. While attending the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, she finally underwent surgery to correct her medical condition. Complications from this operation were to trouble her for the next two years. At age 20, she traveled to the continental United States for treatment at the famous Mayo clinic, where she received an operation that resolved the last of these complications.
Antonia received her Bachelor of Science degree at Rio Piedras in 1965, and her Doctor of Medicine degree from the Univeristy of Puerto Rico at San Juan in 1970. That same year, she married Joseph R. Novello. After completing an internship in pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical Center, she held fellowships in pediatric nephrology there and at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC.
In 1990, President George Bush appointed Antonia Novello to be Surgeon General of the United States. She was both the first woman and the first Latin American to be appointed to this post. Although she never shrank from controversy, Dr. Novello was an unusually popular Surgeon General, winning special praise for her campaigns to address the health problems of America's young people, whom she called "a generation at risk."
After leaving office in 1993, Dr. Novello served UNICEF, the United Nations' children's health organization, as Special Representative for Health and Nutrition. In this capacity, she traveled the world from Peru to Nepal. From 1999 to 2006, she served as Commissioner of Health for the State of New York.
Since 2008, Antonia Novello has been Vice President for Women's and Children's Health and Policy Affairs at Disney Children's Hospital at Florida Hospital in Orlando. This innovative facility provides a uniquely welcoming atmosphere for ailng children, while Dr. Novello's department concentrates on illness prevention and the promotion of family health.
In January 2009, the Inspector General of the State of New York issued a report alleging that during her service as Health Commissioner, Dr. Novello had required state employees to run personal errands for her, incurring overtime costs of $48,000. Dr. Novello declined to comment on the allegations, but took a leave of absence from Disney Hospital to deal with the matter.
After negotiation with the District Attorney of Albany County, Dr. Novello pleaded guilty, in August 2009, to a single felony count of fraud, for failing to disclose that she had used a state-employed driver for personal business. Dr. Novello was required to pay $22,500 in restitution, plus a $5,000 fine, and to perform 250 hours of community service. Dr. Novello performed her service in an Albany public health clinic serving low-income patients, an experience she described as "an eye-opener." Following her community service, she planned to return to her work in Orlando.