Antonia Coello Novello. The “doctor for all Americans ” By Maggie Birkel. Childhood.
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Antonia was born on August 23, 1944 in Fajardo, Puerto Rico to Antonio and Ana Delia Coello. When she was eight her father died and her mother was left to care for her and her two siblings. Novello was also born with congenital megacolon, a disease in which you have an abnormally large, malfunctioning colon. Because of the disease Antonia was chronically ill and had to be hospitalized frequently.
Though the disease caused her much pain it was also a source of inspiration. As a result of it Novello was exposed to issues with the medical system and “she emerged from her ordeal with self-confidence and compassion as well as a determination to ease the sufferings of others by becoming a physician.”
Antonia was always a bright student, constantly pushed and encouraged by her mother who was first the principal of her elementary school and then the principal of her high school. Novello once said of her mother, “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.”
Novello graduated from high school at the age of 15 and then entered the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras as a premedical student. After obtaining her B.S. degree in 1965, entered the university's medical school in San Juan. Then in 1970, after earning her M.D. degree, she married Joseph Novello and the two moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to continue their Medical training at the University of Michigan Medical Center. While there Novello received the intern of the year award in 1971. Her education then went on to include courses and/or training at Georgetown University Hospital and Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Then in 1982 she received a certificate for her work at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
In 1976 Novello opened her own private practice in Springfield, Virginia, specializing in pediatrics and nephrology. But Novello soon abandoned the practice because as she put it “when the pediatrician cries as much as the parents [of patients] do, then you know it's time to get out.” So she instead became a project officer in the artificial kidney and chronic uremia program at the National Institutes of Health in 1978. Novello quickly rose through the ranks and in 1986 she became the deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for the next four years.
At this point in her life, Novello felt she had reached the pinnacle of her career but on October 17, 1989 she was proved wrong when President George Bush nominated her to be the next Surgeon General. Which she became on March 9, 1990. Not only this, she became the first woman and first Hispanic to hold the position.
During her time as surgeon general, which lasted three years, Antonia focused her attention on smoking, drinking, domestic violence, the immunization crisis, AIDS, and injury prevention. She also made the country more aware of the problems facing children and teenagers, women, and minorities.
After Novello stopped being surgeon general she did not end her fight to help others. She became the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Special Representative for Health and Nutrition from 1993 to 1996. Then in 1996, she became Visiting Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Most recently, in 1999, she became Commissioner of Health for the State of New York.
When she was chosen to be surgeon general, Novello told Tonya E. Wolford of Hispanic, “I hope that being the first woman and minority surgeon general ... enables me to reach many individuals with my message of empowerment for women, children, and minorities.” When her term ended in 1993, many people believed she had done just that.