SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — After landing in Portland with a 3-month stash of art supplies, syndicated cartoonist Leigh Rubin immediately headed to the Providence Heart Clinic, where his childhood friend was waiting on a heart transplant.
“As it turns out, his new heart arrived the day I did, which was very thoughtful of him because he knows how much I hate to be kept waiting,” Rubin joked.
While many were holiday shopping on Dec. 8, Rubin had committed to becoming a caretaker for his friend Steve Ulrich, whom he has known since sixth grade. But Ulrich’s new heart, he said, was the perfect gift for both of them.
“He got the gift of life, and I got to keep a friend around for hopefully many more years,” Rubin said.
Long before he joined the exclusive club of syndicated cartoonists, Rubin grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where he and Ulrich read underground comics, like Freak Brothers, and played chess, Frisbee and, occasionally, hooky.
“I’d say we cut the same amount of classes in high school,” Rubin said.
After high school, Ulrich moved to scenic Hood River, Oregon, where he would eventually drive a forklift for Duckwell Fruit. Meanwhile, Rubin began drawing and pitching comics while working at his father’s Panorama City print shop, and soon Creators Syndicate agreed to distribute his single-panels comic across the country and beyond.
“Rubes,” syndicated to 400 media outlets nationwide, features a wacky array of characters — often farm animals, but also an odd assortment of pirates, clowns, cavemen, sharks and more. Sometimes real life will inspire Rubin — a snow-bound Ulrich provided fodder for one gag a few years ago — but mostly he just sits and thinks.
“Pencil and erase, pencil and erase, pencil and erase — that’s what it is,” he said from his Nipomo, California, home several years ago. “I can’t think of anything else but that, and I’ll sit at this damn desk until I think of something.”
Long before the pandemic made remote work a household concept, Rubin drew his daily panel from his home office. Which, of course, would affect his decision when he learned in November that his friend was in line for a heart transplant.
Even though they were separated by roughly a thousand miles, the two had remained close. Ulrich’s daughter Flora was the flower girl at Rubin’s 1985 wedding. And Rubin would often visit Ulrich with friends and family.
“Fifty years,” Rubin said. “We’ve had so many memories together.”
Ulrich had always been an active person, an avid camper and hiker who liked to wander in the fog at the picturesque Saddle Mountain summit.
“My dad has been my number one hiking partner since I was a little kid and was still hiking with me when his heart was failing, though taking it slower,” said his daughter, Flora.
The change was noticeable.
“He was definitely slowing down,” Rubin said. “And every time you’d talk to him, he would cough.”
This past February, it became clear that Ulrich’s heart was not in good shape (his father had died of a heart ailment at 62). And in November, plans were made for Ulrich to receive a heart transplant.
Heart transplants are performed on patients when all other medical or surgical treatments have failed, according to the Mayo Clinic. While the first known heart transplants were performed on dogs at the beginning of the 20th century, they weren’t performed on humans until 1967 — and the early patients only survived a few days. But the advent of antirejection medications in the 1980s vastly improved the survival rate. And a recent “heart in a box” invention — which resuscitates a stopped donor heart and keeps it pumping until it can be transplanted — has increased the number of usable donor hearts by up to 30%.