Richmond Hill artist fights kidney failure by drawing

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In a cartoon recently completed by Richmond Hill resident Carlos Vargas, his batman-like creation, the Ricanphantom, saves a victim of domestic violence from an attack in a Puerto Rican hotel room.

Five years ago, the artist himself was rescued. Mentally and physically drained by 12 hours a week of dialysis treatments that sapped all of his energy and vitality, Vargas was allowing kidney failure to control his life.

He had drawn superheroes since the age of 7 and attended art school part time in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But after his kidneys failed him at the age of 23, triweekly trips to dialysis became more important than his artistic endeavors.

Perpetually tired from the grueling kidney treatment, Vargas went years without touching a pencil until his psychologist and a friend recommended he go to art school.

Vargas figured he would give it a shot, enrolling at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan in 1999, where he began study toward a degree in cartooning.

“It took me a long time to accept my illness,” he said. “But when I started going to school, I realized I didn’t have to be trapped (by) machines. I could do other things as well.”

Earlier this month, he received the New Day Education and Rehabilitation Award from the National Kidney Foundation of New York/New Jersey. Vargas plans to use the $2,000 scholarship to get his cartooning degree, but he does not anticipate stopping his education at that level.

“I then want to pursue illustration,” he said. “And my final goal is to go for a degree in art education. It should take five years to finish all three degrees.”

The Kidney Foundation award marked the culmination of a long, arduous road for the cartoonist.

Vargas, 33, was diagnosed with acute diabetes at the age of 7. Doctors placed him on a regular insulin regimen, but by age 19, Vargas’ diabetes began to hinder his kidney function.

“My protein levels were high and doctors said it was a hint my kidneys were failing,” he said.

At 23, his kidneys completed failed.

“I got really sick and I almost died,” said Vargas. I was in the hospital for eight months.”

When he emerged from the hospital in 1991, Vargas moved to Puerto Rico to live with his parents. He also began to see the psychologist, whose advice to pursue art helped change the way he views his illness.

In the summer of 1999 Vargas moved to Richmond Hill to attend classes and take care of his 84-year-old grandmother.

He really enjoyed an art history course last semester, but at times had trouble striking a balance between his workload and treatment.

“I’m able to keep up but barely,” he said. “It’s hard because most of the time I feel weak and tired.”

But art has enabled Vargas to move beyond the kidneys that have failed him. “I’m even focused more on it than my health,” he said, as he prepared to begin his junior year. It’s played the biggest role in helping me deal with my illness.”

The title character of Vargas’ latest comic creation is the Ricanphantom. The comic, written in a mixture of both English and Spanish, depicts the stories of the Newark, N.J. and San Juan, P.R. streets Vargas grew up on.

“He’s a vigilante-like batman,” said Vargas, “except batman was a millionaire and Ricanphantom is poor.”

In March, Vargas combined his dual lives as patient and artist, drawing a cartoon for the Rogosin Institute Dialysis Newsletter, a publication of his treatment center. The drawing shows a personified version of a natural and artificial kidney shaking hands. “The artificial kidney is a lifesaver,” he said. “That’s why they’re the best of buddies.”

Buoyed by his rediscovered passion, Vargas has decided to look into receiving a kidney transplant. He also needs a new pancreas. “I’ve been in treatment for 12 years,” he said. “It took me a long time to decide to pursue the transplant list.”

Vargas has two brothers in California who have each volunteered to donate a kidney, but tests have not yet been performed to determine if either of them could provide a match.

For now, the decision to pursue the transplant is a big enough step for Vargas.

“For a long time, I didn’t care about living any longer,” he said. “But now that I’m going to school it is really important to get on the list, get a kidney and live a little longer so I can do everything I want to do.”

Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or at (718)229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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