Dr. Antonia C. Novello

Former surgeon general to speak at annual meeting

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed Dr. Antonia C. Novello to be the 14th surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service, establishing her as both the first woman and the first Latin American to hold the post.

Novello will address the joint annual meeting of Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula's Auxiliary and Community Hospital Foundation on January 24, 2008, on the topic of "Breaking down the barriers: The struggle between the business and the science of healthcare."

She graduated from high school at age 15, entered medical school at 20, and by 25 had earned her doctor of medicine degree from the University of Puerto Rick at San Juan.

Perhaps she owes some of her success to the debilitating childhood illness that went unresolved until she was in her 20s.

After spending two weeks every summer in the hospital, the people she learned to relate to were doctors and nurses. After getting lost in the "system of health" for 18 years, she developed a lifelong motivation to solve problems for others. And she took the hardest courses and followed the most difficult paths just to show herself and others she was not sick.

She probably also owes some of her success to her mother, a widow who became the principal of her daughter's junior high school and then high school; a "pushy mother" with great expectations she would not allow her child to fail.

She was motivated to do better, to be better, just so her peers would know her achievements were her own.

And she undoubtedly owes some of her success to her own beliefs and expectations for the American Dream.

The dream taught her to make sure she had all things American - "education, good communication, empathy for people," plus a "little mixture of both feminism and femininity.

"The surgeon general's office is unique," she says, "in that you have nothing but the pulpit. Therefore, you must always be well-informed and motivated to get the message out. The American public is tired of being told you must do this, you must do that. The time has come to tell them what is there and let them do the best they can. You can decide what to tell and then watch them grow."

Finally, she owes some of her success to the personal characteristics that definer her: fortitude, consistency, credibility, and responsibility.

"I believe that fortitude is key," she says. "More than anything, be persistent. Go at it. Go at it. Go at it. And once you've got it, be credible and be responsible. In the new era, everyone will come from a great university. The system will set you apart when you have done something different, and that is going to be community and people involvement."