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Tuesday, April 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Big hearted: Cartoonist Leigh Rubin keeps drawing while caring for friend who had heart transplant

The creator of "Rubes" has been friends with the recipient of the new heart for 50 years.

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.

“Steve and I have been friends for more than 50 years,” Rubin explained. “Here we are around 1975 on the hood of our friend’s ’63 Impala.” (Courtesy Leigh Rubin via Courthouse News)

“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.

Rubin and Ulrich, pre-transplant. “Steve’s blood was being circulated inside and outside of his body via a pump and cannulas,” Rubin explained. “This was the last photo of him with his ‘original equipment’ heart about a half hour before surgery.” (Courtesy Leigh Rubin via Courthouse News)

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%.

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Today, more than 3,500 heart transplants are performed annually around the world, roughly half of which are in the United States. More than 90% of recipients survive for at least a year, and many live more than two decades.

But it is a major procedure, requiring regular rehab, medications and even psychological assistance. With that in mind, Rubin offered to help.

“Steve took that to heart — no pun intended,” Rubin said.

However, a social worker said caretakers had to commit to three months.

That’s a long time, Rubin thought. But he didn’t waver.

“OK,” he said.

Later, while sitting at his home office, he wondered: What the hell did I just commit myself to?

But this was his friend, and Rubin had the flexibility few others do.

“There was really nobody else that could do this,” Rubin said. “And what reason do I have not to?”

As his arrival date neared, Rubin packed the art supplies he’d need to draw “Rubes” from the road — pens, colored pencils, pencil sharpener, erasers, tape, scissors, Sharpies.

When he arrived at the hospital at 5 p.m. on Dec. 8, Ulrich was covered in tubes, including some that circulated the blood outside his body.

“I’ve never seen so many tubes and monitors hooked up to somebody in my life,” Rubin said.

After catching up for a few hours, Rubin posed for a few photos with his old friend. A half hour later, Ulrich was off to surgery.

The next day, as Ulrich was recovering with a new heart, Rubin continued drawing his daily comic. He also prepared to be a caretaker, taking classes and reading from a binder titled “Advanced Therapies and Valuation.”

When he visited the recovering Ulrich, he tried to cheer him up by drawing cartoons around the room — including a “Frankensteve,” a nurse with a huge hypodermic needle and a dog flying a Red Cross helicopter.

A friend of Rubin’s, special effects artist Ryan Johnson, had made him a realistic plastic heart for the trip. And one day Rubin jokingly tossed that heart to a surprised nurse and asked, “You leave these things just lying around everywhere?”

Ulrich’s recovery was steady. Gradually, the tubes disappeared, and his voice returned after several days of intubation. Now he’s looking forward to fly fishing, mountain biking, hiking and spending time with his grandsons.

In addition to his transplanted heart, Steve received this prop heart created by Leigh’s friend, special effects artist Ryan Johnson. (Courtesy Leigh Rubin via Courthouse News)

“Nice to be able to go on with life,” he said. “(And) realize how precious life is.”

The road to recovery is still long — and the first year of recovery is the most challenging.

“It’s a pretty profound thing to witness,” Rubin said. “There’s a lot of reflection that goes on.”

The visit has inspired one “Rubes” gag  so far — a heart patient connected to wires, dancing and singing George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

Obviously, Ulrich is on Rubin’s mind a lot. 

“The selfish factor is I don’t want him to die,” Rubin said, in a rare moment of seriousness. Then he added, “And I want a cool place to go visit with my friends!”

As the two spend their days watching shows on Netflix and Amazon and reminiscing, Ulrich’s daughter reflected on their enduring, unbreakable friendship.

“On paper, they’re opposites but with humor and love,” she said. “They have something few of us will ever experience — someone who always has your back. It’s truly magical.”

Rubin: “Steve’s new pumper installed thanks to the gift of an unnamed donor.” (Courtesy Leigh Rubin via Courthouse News)
Categories / Entertainment, Health, Media

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