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EXCERPT | Duty Calls by Dr. Antonia Novello


Why this book? Why now? Well, I’m not getting any younger, and I want this to be written while I still remember. But there is so much more.

I haven’t told my story. I’m currently one of the few US Surgeons General without a book. There isn’t an endowed chair of medicine or pediatrics or public health at a university in my name either. Why? The first female US Surgeon General and the first Hispanic US Surgeon General. Shouldn’t there be? Maybe it is because the Latin population is so diverse, without a leader to carry all of us whether we are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Central American, South American, Cuban, or Dominican.

I want young Latinas to know that it is possible to start with a normal background, and then through education and hard work achieve their dreams and still be close and loving with their friends and family. I’m from a middle-sized town in Puerto Rico. My mother, stepfather, and brother were my family. Our family wasn’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. My mother was a teacher and school principal. I had a good education but not at a mainland university. Education was crucial. You don’t have to be golden to be number one, you just need the desire to go beyond what you are today. And it is okay if it takes you longer to graduate from college than other students. Most Latinos finish college in six years rather than four because they also usually work thirty hours a week. Many also attend local colleges because of their parents’ desire to keep them close to the nest.

You must decide what legacy you want to leave. I continued my education, thus, I was prepared, and preparation successfully met opportunity, which equaled success. Do the job that nobody else wants to do and do it well. Underpromise and overdeliver. Pick your battles carefully. Surprise wins the war.

I was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, with a disease (congenital megacolon or Hirschsprung’s disease) that caused me to be hospitalized for two weeks every summer until I was eighteen. Congenital megacolon can occur in combination with other conditions including Down’s syndrome or deafness. I feel that God spared me and just had me suffer from extreme constipation because there were bigger plans for my life.

But those bigger plans were not obvious when I was young. Despite my constipation and hospital stays, my mother would not let me feel sorry for myself. She had high expectations for me. Yet there isn’t anybody, including me, who thought I would be Surgeon

General of the United States or Health Commissioner of the State of New York during September 11.

I made it despite the odds. It wasn’t easy, and I have the scars to prove it. Being first is never easy. I intended to be a good role model, always doing the right thing. Nothing is impossible if you really want to get there. Keep going. Trust your gut. Don’t let anybody hold you back. After reading this book, you will see that if I could do it, so can you.

—Antonia Coello Novello, MD, MPH, DrPH, 14th United States Surgeon General

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