If ever anyone could claim she was too busy to take on one more task, Dr. Anita Figueredo would have qualified.
A surgical oncologist married to a pediatrician, Figueredo had nine children and a full-time medical practice. Yet that was no deterrent when she and two friends founded Friends of the Poor.
“It was there to be done,” Figurerdo, now 92, said.
Compassion and empathy were two of the driving forces that compelled her to start the nonprofit organization, she said. She wanted to use the opportunities she had been granted to improve the lives of others.
From the time she was young, Figueredo knew she wanted to be a physician. When she was 5, she and her mother took the United Food Co. ship from Costa Rica to New York so that she could one day be able to attend medical school.
While Figueredo was completing her medical education at the Long Island College of Medicine, World War II began, culling many of the male physicians from the hospital programs. As a result, Figueredo was one of the first two women appointed for a surgical residency at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
“The opportunities were enormous because the men were gone,” she said.
Figueredo continued to make history by moving to San Diego and becoming the first female surgeon in the city.
In 1948, Figueredo and her husband, Dr. James Doyle, moved to La Jolla where they raised six sons and three daughters. She retired from practice in 1996 when she was 80.
One of the high points of Figueredo’s life was her friendship with Mother Teresa, whom she met in the ‘50s after corresponding with her.
“I wrote to her and told her that I did essentially the same kind of work, but that I did it from the comfort of my beautiful office,” Figueredo said.
When they met in person, Figueredo said she was unprepared for the experience.
“It was like being in the hands of God,” she said.
Figueredo’s daughter, Teresa Doyle, also remembers meeting the beloved missionary.
“I was absolutely overcome with emotion meeting Mother Teresa,” Doyle said. “What I learned was to see Jesus in the face of everyone I came into contact with.”
Mother Teresa’s friendship helped Figueredo through a tragic time in her life when her toddler son drowned in a reflecting pool. After learning of the incident, Mother Teresa responded that she had been seeking a patron saint for her Missionaries of Charity brotherhood.
“She said she was looking for somebody very close to God with nothing else to do,” Figueredo recalled.
In a fateful twist, Figueredo received a $5,000 life insurance payment after her son’s death, exactly the amount Mother Teresa needed for a facility for the brothers.
At 92, Figueredo has finally slowed down a bit. From the family home on Coast Boulevard, she shared this advice: “Don’t let any opportunities pass. You never know when you’re going to get another one.”