Dr. Anita Figueredo, the first female surgeon in San Diego and good friend of Mother Teresa, passed away on Friday, Feb. 19, from natural causes at the age of 93. The following is the obituary written by her son-in-law, Dr. Brent Eastman, chief medical officer of Scripps Health and chairman of the Board of Regents of the American College of Surgeons, on behalf of the family:
Dr. Anita V. Figueredo was born in 1916 in Costa Rica, a country where no woman had ever pursued a medical career, and where, indeed, no medical school existed. The granddaughter of a revered and peace-loving general, and daughter of the most acclaimed Costa Rican athlete of his time, Anita Figueredo declared her intention to become a physician when she was only five years old. Her intrepid mother believed in her unlikely dream, and the two of them promptly set sail for New York, where they settled in a Spanish Harlem tenement. To support the household, Anita’s mother worked in a sweatshop and took in piecework. At just fifteen, less than a decade after arriving in America, Anita was awarded a full scholarship to study pre-medicine at Barnard, but she turned it down when an admissions officer made a disparaging remark about her high school—she’d been a scholarship student there too, and never forgot the school’s generosity. She ended up, instead, at Manhattanville College, which matched Barnard’s offer and created a pre-med program exclusively for her benefit.
At the age of nineteen, she was one of only four women enrolled at the Long Island College of Medicine. Soon after graduation, the loss of male physicians to World War II offered Anita an unprecedented opportunity as one of the first two women residents in surgery at Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases (now Memorial Sloan-Kettering).
A faithful and free-thinking Catholic, Dr. Figueredo loved to tell the story of the day God directed her attention toward a lanky young med school classmate, telling her, in a loud and unequivocal voice, “That’s the one.” She was married to Dr. William Doyle, a pediatrician, for 57 years, and the couple raised nine children together. They were a handsome if somewhat improbable couple, Dr. Doyle towering over his wife’s 4’ 11” frame, which required her to employ a stepstool while performing surgery. Having settled in La Jolla, California, as the first female surgeon in San Diego County (and the first female physician from the entire country of Costa Rica), Dr. Figueredo maintained a demanding practice in the field of oncologic surgery throughout her motherhood. She once walked straight from the OR to the maternity ward, where she gave birth and returned to make rounds on her patient the following morning.
When asked about whether she suffered discrimination from male colleagues, Anita Figueredo always said that she supposed there may have been some but she never saw it. And indeed she was held in the highest esteem at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, which was the primary site of her surgical practice for several decades. She was unfailingly good-natured, and her example forged a path for the generations of women who have followed her into medicine. Technically, Anita was an exceptional surgeon – I know, because I was once fortunate enough to share a practice with her. Dr. Figueredo revolutionized the approach to cancer in her community not only by applying the surgical techniques she learned at Memorial, but also with concepts of prevention and the cancer detection exam, including the Pap smear she learned from Dr. Papanicolau himself. Although Dr. Figueredo retired from the operating room in the mid-1970s, she followed legions of devoted patients in her office until after her eightieth birthday.
A fierce proponent of women’s higher education, she was a founding member of the board of trustees of San Diego College for Women, later the University of San Diego, and served in that capacity for forty years.
Dr. Figueredo’s great passion in life, aside from medicine and her family, was humanitarianism, a calling that produced a four-decade-long friendship with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who called her “The Smiling Apostle of Charity.” Dr. Figueredo was among Mother Teresa’s few intimates, and the two women rendezvoused all over the world in service of the poor. It was Dr. Figueredo who lobbied the nun to establish her mission in Tijuana, Mexico, which now serves as the world headquarters for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Fathers. (“This is the answer to years of prayer,” she told the New York Times.) In 1982, Dr. Figueredo founded a charity of her own, Friends of the Poor, originally devoted to the needy residents of Tijuana and San Diego, and now expanded to three continents. A woman with no patience for traditional leisure activities nor attachment to material things, Anita spent her retirement happily sorting donations of medicine, clothing and food. Until February 4th, when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, she was a daily attendee and lector at her parish’s 8 a.m. mass. In her last days at home in her bedroom overlooking the sea, Anita was visited by a stream of former patients, colleagues, and religious figures, including three of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity who came to serenade her on the Echo Harp. She died peacefully on Feb. 19, surrounded by her six surviving children and many of her eleven grandchildren.
Dr. Figueredo was truly loved by all who knew her, and served as an inspiration and benefactor to many thousands more. Her pioneering work and unusual life were chronicled in Costa Rican newspapers for decades, capturing the imagination of her native country. She was also a familiar figure in the California press, and made national headlines as well. These details represent the tip of the iceberg of Dr. Figueredo’s long and extraordinary life, which is recounted fully in her biography, published last year, “A Trail of Light: The Very Full Life of Dr. Anita Figueredo,” by her oldest daughter Sarita Eastman; the Spanish translation has just been completed in Costa Rica.
Such was the force of Dr. Anita Figueredo’s personality, she never imagined that the world would not accommodate her unorthodox aspirations, and she was right.
A memorial service and celebration of her life will be held on Friday, March 19th, at 2 p.m. at the Immaculata Church on the campus of the University of San Diego. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the charity founded by Dr. Figueredo, Friends of the Poor. Donations may be made online at www.friendsofthepoor.us or sent to Friends of the Poor, 417 Coast Blvd., La Jolla, CA 92037.