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'Quite an adventure': Cartoonist helps lifelong friend through heart transplant

Over three months, Steve Ulrich and Leigh Rubin drew strength and inspiration from each other. Rubin also drew cartoons for his nationally syndicated comic.

PORTLAND, Oregon — A Hood River man has a new heart and deepened appreciation for a lifelong friend.

Steve Ulrich, 66, received a heart transplant in December at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Southwest Portland. But before getting on a transplant waiting list, doctors told Ulrich he would need someone to commit to being a temporary, in-house caregiver to him for three months. Ulrich reached out to his close friend, Leigh Rubin.

"Steve wouldn't have gotten the heart unless someone could commit to that time," said Rubin. "I didn't know it was going to be that long at first but when they said three months I go, 'Okay, I'm in... what am I thinking? What am I thinking?!'"

Rubin might have been thinking back to 1968. That's when he and Ulrich met as sixth grade classmates in Los Angeles. They grew up together and although Ulrich moved to Hood River and Rubin stayed in California, the two have remained close friends ever since.

Credit: Leigh Rubin
November 1968. Leigh Rubin in the second row with glasses, Steve Ulrich seen in the back row

"He was a good friend and able to do that because he works from home," said Ulrich.

In fact, there were many days when Rubin even worked from Steve's hospital rooms. Sometimes that entailed working on the rooms, too; the doors, the windows and any dry erase boards within arm's reach. Leigh Rubin is the cartoonist behind "Rubes," a single panel comic that's syndicated in more than 400 media outlets around the world. 

Credit: Leigh Rubin
Some of Leigh Rubin's cartoons on display in the hospital

In the hospital, Rubin drew characters and quips straight out of the funny pages, as well as caricatures of Ulrich including one he titled "Frankensteve."

"I would change things every day, little tiny things to see if anybody would notice," said Rubin. He also drew inspiration from Ulrich's medical journey for his daily comics, which Ulrich didn't mind.

"I've been enjoying his cartoons my whole life!" added Ulrich. "I had fun with it and the staff appreciated it."

Credit: KGW/Leigh Rubin
Leigh Rubin shows a cartoon inspired by Steve Ulrich

For Rubin, a sense of humor is its own kind of vital sign.

"It's a great way to deal with life," said Rubin. "I mean, seriously."

In March, Rubin and Ulrich packed their bags and left the rental house they'd been living in near the hospital. Rubin flew back to California. 

"I have a very understanding wife," he said. 

Ulrich drove back to Hood River where friends are also supporting him.

"I'm glad I made it to the other side," said Ulrich. 

"It's been quite an adventure!" added Rubin.

Ulrich and Rubin are grateful for the person whose heart now beats in Ulrich's chest.

"A family that goes through tragedy losing a loved one... and I get to live," said Ulrich. "I felt pretty emotional about that."

"That's the hardest part of it," said Rubin. "If you're not a donor, consider becoming a donor." 

This story is part of our new series, Pacific Storyland. From the ordinary to the extraordinary, we'll bring you the most heartwarming and inspiring stories from where you live. Know someone you'd like to see featured? Let us know! Email us at pacificstoryland@kgw.com or text your story ideas to 503-226-5088. 

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