Pioneering Surgeon Reflects on Personal History

Pioneering Surgeon Reflects on Personal History

Sam Hodgson

Dr. Sarita Eastman recently completed a book about her mother, Dr. Anita Figueredo, who was the first female surgeon in San Diego. Photo: Sam Hodgson

Friday, Oct. 16, 2009 | Dr. Anita Figueredo can’t remember why she said she wanted to be a doctor, but her conviction as a 5-year-old was enough for her mother to move them from Costa Rica to the United States for American schooling.

“I’d never had an alternative. That’s what I wanted to be and I never changed my mind,” Figueredo said.

Now 93 years old, Figueredo can look back on a busy life. She was the first female surgeon in San Diego, the mother of nine children and had a decades-long friendship with Mother Teresa.

In May, her daughter, Dr. Sarita Eastman, published a book on her mother’s legacy, “A Trail of Light: The Very Full Life of Dr. Anita Figueredo,” which is being translated into Spanish in Figueredo’s native Costa Rica.

Figueredo, Eastman and I spoke about traveling to Costa Rica, discovering family history and her friendship with Mother Teresa.

How did you decide to make such a big move from Costa Rica to the U.S.?

AF: We were looking at the ultimate end. My mother was a woman who thought ahead. I came when I was 5 years old. I wanted to be a doctor, but there were no medical schools and no women doctors in Costa Rica.

If I wanted to be a doctor and if someone was going to take a 5-year-old child at her word, you had to go where those things were so we came to United States.

SE: She had a very strong, determined mother who wanted to listen to you and make sure you got an education. The other part was that you had a cousin who was the first woman attorney in all of Central America. She told your mother you had to be educated in United States — there was no way to do it in Costa Rica.

What was the impetus for the book?

SE: I was oldest daughter of nine. I grew up being invited to banquets and celebrations of her achievements. I was always fascinated by how she accomplished all the things she did. When I grew up, I decided to explore how she became the type of woman she was. So it was a 20 year process going back to Costa Rica where she was born and interviewing people and finding documents. I wrote it as a family story.

In January 2009, Scripps Memorial Hospital decided to honor Mother with a lifetime achievement award. If we would publish it they’d buy the first 200 copies of the book.

What was that research like?

SE: Her memory was extremely sharp when I writing it in the 1990s and it has been fading in last five years so it was very important I wrote it when I did and I knew enough to begin interviewing my grandmother in the 1970s when her memory was still sharp before she began to lose her memory. She had boxes of letters, so I had all of those including letters in Costa Rica. Plus news clippings from Costa Rica.

You never stopped getting out the press!

For about a year, I’d go to my grandmother’s apartment and look at old photographs and we’d speak in Spanish. She would start telling me stories that she hadn’t told in a very long time.

So I started with all this written material and genealogical archives so I went to Costa Rica and went to archives there.

What was that like delving into what sounds like rich family history?

SE: It was like a treasure hunt. Along with it, every day after my research, every evening I’d come home and I’d sit in the living room with a cousin and I’d hear all sorts of family stories.

I remember you telling me you were fascinated because you knew none of it. That was most fascinating part. She left Costa Rica as a 5-year-old, so she knew no family history. There were so many fun aspects of it, everything I learned I’d tell her. We learned about family history together.

I didn’t want the story to be lost. I wanted it to be available for our children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews.

Did it ever get too personal in interviewing her about her life? How did you separate yourself as the author and not as her daughter?

I don’t think I did. It’s partly memoir too, it’s both completely true and very affectionate. I spent many, many months interviewing Mother once a week.

Mother never said there was anything that was off limits. She was very willing to discuss all that. She didn’t attempt to censor or remove anything. But then again you didn’t have too much to censor.

We had books of contemporary news clippings, she has a room filled with awards so she gave me great details about her life in the United States and her lifelong friendship with Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Could you tell me more about your friendship with Mother Teresa and how that impacted the rest of your life?

AF: I read the first article published about her in U.S. in 1958. I [wrote her and] told her that I did same type of work she did, I was person who took care of sick and people in trouble, except I did it from the comfort of my elegant office.

SE: You sent her $10. You were astonished to receive a letter from her. She said in her letter she had read your letter to all of her assembled sisters.

AF: Which amazed me, it was an ordinary letter

SE: And she asked God to let you meet.

AF: But you don’t meet someone from India easily like that.

SE: [Two years later], she made her first appearance in the U.S. in San Diego.

AF: We had an erratic correspondence. She had written that I would be pleased to hear that she was coming to U.S. to give a lecture. The paper said tonight she would be speaking in San Diego so I went, you don’t skip that. I called a couple of friends and took them with me. We were way in the back of the room and she was already speaking when we got there, late. It was announced that she’d be glad to greet anyone afterward. When I got up to her, I said “Mother Teresa, I’m Dr. Anita Figueredo and this is …” And she said “Anita! I prayed we would meet!”

That was end of the thing. That was end of the receiving line. We just became close friends. The letters were quite regular.

SE: Then you were friends for 40 years. You met in rendezvous all over world. During that time, you began to ask her to found a house in Tijuana, Mexico. You already had a foundation, Friends of the Poor, and you knew the great need there was. Then one day in 1988, she did.

AF: It was my life’s ambition to get that done because I knew the need that there was in Tijuana. We were trying to take care of it ourselves but we needed her nuns.

SE: She’s always said “Take care of those around you. Take care of your neighbor.” Then the concept of who is a neighbor expands.

What was it like being one of first female surgeons in La Jolla and one of the first women to do cancer surgery, being a pioneer?

AF: Well it’s all I knew! That’s the way it always was and I didn’t expect it to change. I didn’t let [discrimination] bother me. As long as they didn’t stand in my way. I didn’t have the sense to recognize it couldn’t be done, so I did it.

What did you find most fulfilling?

SE: In the 1940s, cancer was a death sentence and I think you brought a whole new attitude from New York that it didn’t need to be a death sentence and you did big operations that saved lives.

Where do you get your confidence from?

AF: I always had that. I never saw obstacles as totally obstructive. “You can’t do that because …” Not if you work hard enough, you can do it. Guess I was born with it. Anyone who says it can’t be done hasn’t tried hard enough.

— Interview conducted and edited by DAGNY SALAS

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