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If you like Antonia Novello's story, you might also like:
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Paul Farmer,
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Antonia Novello also appears in the videos:
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Antonia Novello
Antonia Novello
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Antonia Novello Interview

Former Surgeon General of the United States

June 18, 1994
Las Vegas, Nevada

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  Antonia Novello

When did you know that you wanted to become a doctor?

Antonia Novello: All my life.

I was one of those children who were sick when they were born. So, all my life, I spent two weeks every summer in the hospital. So, the people that I learned to relate to since I was little were doctors and nurses, always assuming that they were there doing things in my mind. I always felt I was going to be a doctor. I didn't know when, but I knew that was the only thing that I really had role models on a constant basis.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

What was your illness as a child?

Antonia Novello: I was born with an inability to move the intestines because there were no nerve cells. It's called congenital megacolon. I was born without the cells that make you think you have to go to the bathroom.

I was one of those kids that got lost in the system of health, either because you're poor or either because your parents are not doctors, so you cannot ask the right questions. I was one of those. I was supposed to have surgery when I was eight, and I didn't have surgery until I was 18. So, when you get lost in the track of medicine, then you want to be somebody that will solve the problems for others. And I think that motivation was there all my life, all my life.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

And then, when I was 18 and I entered college, all of a sudden, I thought, I want this to be over. I told my mother, "I want this over," because I would be skinny one month and I would be fat the other month. You cannot look normal in the minds of an adolescent because your belly would get big and people would probably have, even the possibility in their minds, that there was something in there that was not what it was. So, it was over at 18, but it could have been over at eight. That really taught me that if you feel you're sick, you must have somebody who follows up with you. Otherwise, you can get lost. In my case, it was not fatal, but it was too long to go with the disease that I had when it could have been solved. First, at birth it was missed, then at eight.

Tell me about your childhood, the conditions under which you grew up as a kid.

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Antonia Novello: I was one of those middle class kids who had a pushy mother. She was the principal of the junior high school. Plus, on top of that, every time a teacher was absent, Mommy would come and substitute for the class. So there was never a day off. Most important, Mommy was my teacher of mathematics and science, at which she was very good. That was very hard. Since I was little, it taught me I can't fail. One, because she would not allow me to, and second, because she would whop me in the middle of the class.

Then she became the principal of the high school, so she followed my whole career. She always pre-selected the teachers that were going to be in charge of my education. If I was going to ninth grade, the best math teacher would be in ninth grade that year. She would say, "Education is the reason by which we exist, and I will make sure that the best teaches you, because public school is a good system." She made sure of that. All my life I almost felt that my grades were not mine, that my grades were a product of my mother making sure that I was educated by the best.

I always remembered coming down a stairway once when I got an "A" in Spanish 12 by a teacher who never had given an "A" to anyone. And, as I came down through the steps running to tell my peers, which were five, they were talking without them knowing that I was listening, and they said, "I bet you that Tonia is going to have an 'A' because (her mother) Miss Flores talked to Mr. Hernandez." That really put it into the perspective. That was junior year. It only motivated me to be better. So, what I did is I studied so hard from there on that I took the entry examination to college in my junior year rather than my senior year, with the hope that, if I failed, I still had one year to catch up. And, to my surprise, I was the highest grade in the school.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

It helped my ego. It hurt my relationships with my peers because they already felt that I was separate. But, at that moment in my junior year, it said "Your mother did not make your grades. You made your grades." It established once and for all, I may be the principal's daughter, but I am my own person and I'm not dumb, and I can show it. It was quite a turning point in my life.

I remember a little Peanuts cartoon that said, "There's no greater burden than great potential." You must have felt a lot of pressure as a kid.

Antonia Novello Interview Photo
Antonia Novello: Do you know what else I learned? To be accepted by my peers with all these things against me, I felt that I had to be the comedian. To this day, I don't think I would have survived 18 years of my disease if I had not learned to laugh at myself. I was the humorous kid in school. I was the funny one. I was the actress. I had to be accepted, so I did every single thing. If it had to be done, I was the one who did everything. I was president of every club.

I have always found that the element of surprise wins the biggest battles. If people assumed that I was funny, then they would be my friends. Friendship is one thing and intelligence is another one. At the entrance examination test, that was the time to show that I was intelligent.

I graduated from high school when I was 15. I turned 16 in August. I didn't have surgery until I was 18. There were complications of the surgery that stayed with me until I was 20, when I entered medical school. During those years, between age 16, when I was in college, and my twenties, in medical school, I learned to laugh at myself because, with all the complications of the surgery, it was very hard to act like there was nothing wrong.

In my junior year in college, I had one of the biggest surgeries to correct the complications of the eighteenth birthday surgery. And some other kid would have said, "I'm sick. I'm going to take music appreciation, art." I took that semester -- as a denial -- calculus, trigonometry, quantitative chemistry, everything that made me believe that I was not sick. But the part was, that in those six months, I had to wear Pampers to go to college and no one ever knew because I was not about to show it. And I continued to laugh at this little incidental in my life while I was showing that my brain was still okay. So that taught me one thing which I think sometimes is useful and sometimes is not. I have this inability to feel for the ones who use disease to not do what they are supposed to do. Because, believe me, if I did it, then anyone can, because there will be the plugging of the microscope, the plugging of the heating pad and the every five minutes going to the bathroom because I had to, until I had my last surgery.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

The point is, you can be sick and get to the top, absolutely. People will always help you. The other point is: don't get disappointed because sickness puts you down. I went through a system of care that was not very keen, in a diseased state that makes you realize that there are good people and bad people in medicine, with a mother who said, "I'm not going to let your disease be used for you not to succeed." All those three prepared me for the job that God eventually made me have. When I speak, some people say, "Oh, great speech." I say, "Well, I learned it in the school of life." Life has taught me is how to say it in a way that is understood without self pity, but with a lot of impact because I have been there. I absolutely have been there.

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