Today: How Dr. Anita Figueredo, a confidant of Mother Teresa, became a female surgical pioneer.
What if I told you a little girl abandoned by her father and left to be raised by her destitute mother, would become San Diego’s first female surgeon, a close friend to Mother Teresa and the founder of an organization that helps to feed, clothe and provide medical care and other basic necessities to the desperately poor.
It may seem hard to believe such a woman existed but this is a true story.
Anita was born in Costa Rica in 1916, a nation that had no medical school, yet by the age of five, she already dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Her mother believed in her dream and packed up Anita and moved to one of the poorest places in New York City, Spanish Harlem. They lived in a tenement building and Anita’s mother worked long hours in a garment industry sweatshop and took in piece work to support them.
Anita saw the sacrifices being made for her and was determined to achieve. And she did, for at 15, she had finished high school and prestigious Barnard College offered her a full scholarship to become a pre-med student.
But during the interview process, a Barnard official insulted her high school, where she had been treated well, so highly principled Anita stunned everyone when she turned down Barnard.
Instead, she accepted a scholarship to Manhattanville College.
A top student, after her graduation at 19, Anita was accepted to Long Island Medical College, one of only four women among 90 men in the class.
In that era, it was hard for women to be accepted to medical school because the directors were almost always men and they often viewed women as taking seats that rightfully belonged to men. They also felt most of those women just wanted to meet prospective prosperous husbands and would drop out or stop practicing once they got married.
As it turned out, while in medical school, another student, Bill Doyle captured her heart the instant she saw him and they got married in 1942. He became a pediatrician and was very supportive of her career. They were married for the next 57 years until his passing in 1999.
But even having graduated from medical school, for women jobs were hard to get, as the people doing the hiring were almost always men, who often discriminated against them.
However, World War ll solved this problem because many doctors were drafted into the military, creating a severe shortage. So 4 feet, 11 inch dynamo Anita became one of the first two female surgical residents at what is today Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Eventually, Bill became chief medical officer at San Diego’s Scripps Memorial Hospital and Anita ran a very successful surgical oncology [cancer] practice there for many years, becoming the first female surgeon in San Diego County.
But being a devout Catholic, even as a very busy working woman, she became a mother to nine children. In one instance, she concluded a surgery and then walked into the maternity ward and gave birth. A day later, she made rounds, checking on her patients.
However, her faith was tested when two of her sons were killed in accidents and a third died from brain cancer. “My faith gave me the strength to bear these things,” she told San Diego Magazine* in a 2009 interview. “There was never any question that God didn’t know what He was doing.”
As a very successful physician, Anita wanted to help other women, and despite the demands on her time, she was a founder of San Diego College for Women (now the University of San Diego) and served on its Board for the next 40 years.
Now here is where our story takes an even more remarkable twist. Deeply moved by a story she read about Mother Teresa in the late 1950’s, Anita wrote to her and enclosed a donation. Mother Teresa wrote back and these two exceptional ladies began corresponding.
In 1960, when Mother Teresa came to San Diego they met. Thereafter, they continued to meet all over the world and Anita became a close friend and confidant as they worked on several projects for the poor. This work had a profound influence on Anita.
In 1982, she started the Friends of the Poor; a charitable organization that provides food, clothing and medical care to the desperately poor in Mexico, and now in Guatemala and Nigeria.
Anita conducted surgeries into the 1970’s and held office visits for her patients until she was 80 years old in 1996. But she had no interest in hobbies or in material wealth, so rather than retire, she became more active in charity work, collecting and directing donations of food and clothing and medical supplies. And of course she was a devoted grandmother.
In 2010, at the age of 93, Anita had a cerebral hemorrhage and in her final days, family, friends, patients, colleagues and charity officials, including three from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity came to visit her at her La Jolla home.
Anita peacefully passed away and is survived by six of her children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grand children.
She is also survived by her extended family of the thousands of women for whom she opened educational and career doors, doors that had been largely pad-locked to her in her youth.
Her survivors also include the tens of thousands of poor people to whom she opened her heart and her purse, and of course she is survived by her thousands of patients, some of whom owe their lives to her medical skills.
All this happened because a little girl had a dream and a willingness to dedicate herself to it, and a mother who worked night and day doing menial work so Anita would have the opportunity to do what she did, change the world.
Success Tip of the Week:
Anita was known for her warm smile and positive attitude and Mother Teresa called her, “The Smiling Apostle of Charity.” Think of what you can accomplish with a big smile and a positive attitude as you help to uplift the people around you.
To learn more about Anita, please see “A Trail of Light: The Very Full Life of Dr. Anita Figueredo,” a 2009 book by her eldest daughter, Dr. Sarita Eastman. There is also a fine tribute written by Sarita’s husband, Dr. Brent Eastman, chief medical officer of Scripps Health: http://www.scripps.org/news_items/3616-in-memory-of-san-diego-icon-dr-anita-figueredo.
*San Diego Magazine, November, 2009. http://www.sandiegomagazine.com/media/San-Diego-Magazine/November-2009/Anita-Figueredo/
To learn more about Anita’s charity, Friends of the poor, please visit: http://friendsofthepoor.us/Friends_of_the_Poor/Home.html
In the next KazanToday:
A homeless girl who rose from the urine stained streets of skid row and from homeless shelters to receive a scholarship to Harvard.