Another entry in the world of strange juxtapositions: In this corner, wearing a dark blue vice-admiral’s uniform, resplendent with brass buttons, tri-star epaulets and five rows of medals, is Antonia Novello, the new Surgeon General of the United States. In this corner, wearing a large-rimmed black hat and bushy mustache and gripping a lit cigarette with ashes dangling precariously, is her brother-in-law. comedian Don Novello, aka Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live. Who’s funnier? “She’s pretty funny,” concedes Father Guido, who says he’s at least thinking of giving up cigarettes now that Antonia is Surgeon General. “For now, though, I’m switching to menthols. I heard they have more vitamin C.”
“You would think that Don is the doctor and Toni is the comedian,” says Joe Novello, Don’s brother and Antonia’s husband.
“For the longest time, we didn’t want Donnie to admit he was related to us.” deadpans the Surgeon General.
Twenty years of calling the father brother may have prepared Antonia, 46, for any trial, including his comments on her new uniform. (“I think maybe it could be a little bigger in the shoulders. And, you know, maybe a black hat with a nice big rim on it.”) But Antonia Novello, the first woman and first person of Hispanic descent to serve as Surgeon General, has a much more serious test ahead of her. Fortunately, along with the heavy medal uniform, Novello has gained a bully pulpit for preaching her real concerns: an antismoking campaign, improved AIDS education and better health care for minorities, women and children.
That may sound like a bloodless agenda, designed to offend no one, but Novello, a pediatric kidney specialist, is a woman not to be taken lightly. Although so far she is less vocal than her outspoken predecessor, Dr. C. Everett Koop, who unnerved conservatives with his frank pronouncements on topics ranging from the threat of AIDS to cigarette smoking. Novello seems to be finding her voice—and it can be firm. In September she blasted the distributors of Cisco, a cheap “dessert” wine with a 20 percent alcohol content whose marketing, she maintained, was aimed at teenagers and the poor. “It may taste like Kool-Aid, she said, “but it can kill like crack.” Later that month, when she released a study on the benefits of quitting smoking, Novello lectured women—whose lung cancer rate has more than doubled since 1973. “Call it,” she said, “a case of the Virginia Slims woman catching up with the Marlboro Man.” Says her husband, Joe, a Washington, D.C., child psychiatrist and former radio talk show host: “She’s where Mother Teresa meets Margaret Thatcher.” The Surgeon General puts it bluntly. “I have no patience for self-pity. Life issues you a card, and you have to learn to play it.”
As a girl, “Tonita” Coello learned to keep playing, no matter what. A native of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, a small town 32 miles southeast of San Juan, she grew up poor and was afflicted with a congenital malformation of the large intestine that left her weak and needing frequent surgery. The condition was not corrected until she was 18. “That’s the main reason I wanted to become a doctor,” Novello says. “I thought, ‘When I grow up, no other person is going to wait 18 years.’ ” Her father, Antonio, died when Novello was 8. Her mother, Ana Delia Flores, for 30 years a Fajardo middle school principal, pushed her daughter.
In 1970, after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine and marrying Joe Novello, then a Navy flight surgeon stationed in Fajardo, Novello began her pediatric residency at the University of Michigan. Later, she had a private practice in the Washington area but decided to give it up. “When the pediatrician cries as much as the parents [of patients] do, then you know it’s time to get out,” Novello says. She joined the U.S. Public Health Service and held a succession of jobs there during the next 12 years until President Bush selected her for the Surgeon General’s post last fall.
Novello’s suite at the Department of Health and Human Services, populated by Cabbage Patch dolls and decorated with photos of children and their artwork, looks more like a pediatrician’s waiting room than a bureaucrat’s office. The Surgeon General makes no secret of her special affection for children, frequently visiting young patients in hospitals, dispensing hugs and gibes about the kids’ “sharpeedoo” haircuts.
Although Novello has publicly toed the Administration’s line, she has avoided explicitly stating her personal views on abortion. When pressed, she says, “Having been born with a congenital defect makes me think that everything has a chance to live.” (The Novellos have no children; Antonia had to have a hysterectomy 13 years ago. For a time the couple tried to adopt, but, says Eunice Diaz, a friend who lives in Los Angeles and serves on the congressional National AIDS Commission, “I think at a certain point age and responsibility catch up with you.”)
When not on the job, Novello likes to relax at the Georgetown home she shares with Joe and their cat, Nicolosa. The quiet time helps her recharge for the task of winning over the holdouts who have trouble accepting a Hispanic woman in a high post. She still remembers slights, like the time an ensign in the Public Health Service asked her to stand in the back of a line. “I said, I beg your pardon, but I’m a captain,’ ” she recalls. “He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know Puerto Ricans had their own captains.’ Now that I’m a vice-admiral, I’d like to go back and show him my stripes.”
—Charles E. Cohen, Teresa Riordan in Washington