Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Antonia Novello: A Dream Come True

Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Antonia Novello: A Dream Come True

Article excerpt

As a little girl in Puerto Rico, Antonia Novello dreamed of becoming "a pediatrician--a doctor for the little kids in my hometown." Last year, this smart, funny, 46-year-old pediatrician became a doctor for all Americans when she was sworn in at the White House as the nation's first Hispanic and also first female surgeon general.

"Dreams sometimes come true in a strange way," she told an enthusiastic audience that included President George Bush and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "The American dream is well and alive. . . today the West Side Story comes to the West Wing."

Now, one year after taking on one of the toughest jobs in Washington--following C. Everett Koop in the country's most visible health job--Novello is proving uniquely qualified to serve all Americans as their top health advocate.

"Being a pediatrician, a woman, and a minority has helped prepare me to do this job," explained Novello from her cozy, teddy bear accented office in Washington's Health and Human Services building. "The pediatrician takes care of the whole family and finds out what is wrong, even though the patient may not know how to put the problem into words."

In government, "the ability to speak up for the people who are not able to speak for themselves is key," said Novello, whose initial programs have targeted the health concerns of the nation's least vocal constituency--children and youth.

"Being a woman, I learned diplomacy," Novello continued. "We women have always learned how to listen and how to wait . . . until there comes your moment to speak. Then you take into consideration everybody's feelings and make sense of things that sound so complicated." As a minority she is exquisitely sensitive to the concerns of the under-represented. "The beauty is," she said, "that I can come up with something that is understood by all."

In addition to her unique perspective as the first female, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, pediatrician surgeon general, Novello's difficult childhood experience with a disease that forced her to be hospitalized every year has resulted in an extraordinary sensitivity for the patient.

"I was a sick kid, although my mother never made me feel sick," recalled Novello, who was born with congenital megacolon (an abnormally large, distorted, malfunctioning colon) that was not repaired until she was 18. "I was hospitalized every summer for at least two weeks. My pediatrician and my gastroenterologist were so nurturing and good to me that doctors became my buddies."

Although Novello was told she would have surgery to repair her colon at age 8, "somebody forgot," she said with a wry smile of remembered pain. "The university hospital was in the north, I was 32 miles away, my mother (who was a school principal) could only take me on Saturday, so the surgery was never done.

"I do believe that some people fall through the cracks. I was one of those." This is one reason why Novello vowed to be a doctor. "I thought, when I grow up, no other person is going to wait 18 years for surgery."

During Novello's annual hospitalizations "they would clean me up," she said. "When you have congenital megacolon your belly grows up very big . . . Everyone knew I had megacolon so no one talked behind my back. I think that would have been devastating. But by the time I was 18, it was not good to have those big bellies one month that are, in the next month, flat." That's when she told her mother that she was determined to have surgery.

A cardiovascular surgeon performed the operation because, she said, "he was the only one willing to give it a try." But after complications from the surgery she left Puerto Rico and checked into the Mayo Clinic for two months. "God bless my doctor at the Mayo," said Novello, who still seems upset that the experience cost her a semester of school.

Living with chronic illness until adulthood left Novello "very conscious of how people feel when they are in the bed as a patient," she said. …

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