People who knew Ruben describe him as an ideal blend of sweet and tough. He could be the guy passing out advice to his friends about family matters or career or lifestyle, but this was also an hombre who survived a gunshot wound on the streets of East LA. I don’t know if he was always so patient, but living for more than 25 years with only the ability to move his neck, Ruben had acquired the calmness of a monk.
was laid to rest this week. Here are a few reflections about the much loved man, and a photo tribute, to go along with Priti Mehta’s recent obituary post
I first knew Ruben, as many people did, by way of his artwork; he was a self-taught pointillist who had developed an exacting and nuanced craft, using a mouthstick to apply ink or paint. One could see Ruben’s work hanging on the walls of Rancho Los Amigos
, his rehab alma mater, and I recall seeing him and his paintings at several Abilities Expos
in Los Angeles. I got to know him better in 2005 while producing a series of videos for the Reeve collection. Conveniently, Ruben helped us make two segments, one on his artwork
(wherein Ruben talks about taking up painting, partly to relieve boredom, and with his mom’s encouragement. Here’s another video
about the art side of Ruben’s life, this from a Reeve-sponsored art show at Galley 825 in Los Angeles; skip to 3:29 for Ruben’s comments.
Ruben in 2005, at home.
The other video
featured Ruben’s ability to play video games totally hands-free; the man describes progressing from all day I Love Lucy episodes to having an active, social lifestyle. Check out that tricked out controller.
In 2007, Ruben became an official ambassador for the Reeve Foundation, appearing at conferences and meetings, helping bring awareness of the Reeve resources to the Latino community, and often demonstrating his painting style.
Ruben in Phoenix, AZ, 2010, at a Reeve symposium of scientists and community members.
A rosary and viewing were held for Ruben in East LA this past Sunday. I went to pay my respects, and to let the Rios family know, especially his mother Rosa and three sisters Carolina, Rose and Nancy, that Ruben was an important role model and valued resource for the Reeve Foundation. I presented Rosa a copy of the new Paralysis Resource Guide
, featuring a dramatic Christopher Voelker photograph of Ruben taken June 23, 2012, in the act of painting. (The image made her cry, but in a good way.)
Ruben as he appears in the Paralysis Resource Guide
For the shoot, Ruben had brought along a small blank canvas as a prop, so he could actually be painting while being photographed. The canvas became a sketch of me, as I sat on a stool nearby while Chris set up the images. I still have the painting (see below) and from what we hear, this was one of the last pieces Ruben painted before he had the respiratory emergency that put him into a coma.
Painting of Sam Maddox, not quite finished.
I asked his sister Carolina what happened. Ruben had spoken to his friend Gary Little [he’s the hooded partner in the video game piece], who was feeling a bit of the blues. Gary lives nearby and is also a quad, although unlike Ruben, has a bit of hand function. Carolina dropped Ruben off so he could visit Gary and maybe cheer him up; after a time he told Gary he needed to suction – this is a major fact of life for those on mechanical ventilators and who are unable to drum up a cough on their own. So Ruben headed home, just 10 minutes away, powering his power wheelchair by sip and puff. Just before he got home, Carolina said, a mucus plug apparently blocked his air. He was found on the street, alive but comatose. He remained in this state in various hospitals, nursing homes, and for a short time at home, until February 10. Carolina said Ruben fought all sorts of issues, including pneumonia, urinary tract infection, and even full body sepsis.
As a tribute to Ruben, here are images from the 2012 Christopher Voelker photo shoot, shortly before Ruben went into coma. Two are solo images. The third features Ruben’s good friend Yolanda who accompanied him to the studio. Images copyright C. Voelker
, used with permission.