Illness & Life Challenges "Lions, Tigers & Bears" Artist Paul Gutierrez

In the world of independently produced comics (generally considered to be any comics not published by DC or Marvel Comics), delayed releases are something of a regularity. The reasons are many, ranging from over worked creators spread too thin or not managing their schedules well, to the distractions an Xbox 360 and "Grand Theft Auto" pose. The delays upset fans, who log on to message boards decrying the lateness and taking said creators to task -sometimes with good reason, other times not as much. But sometimes the delays aren't caused by video games or crazy schedules or any excuses of that sort. Sometimes the delays are due to events far more serious.

That's the case for Los Angeles based artist Paul Gutierrez. Gutierrez is the current artist on the Image Comics series "Lions, Tigers & Bears." He joined the title this year following the departure of artist Jack Lawrence. Gutierrez began with issue #3, which saw release in early September. Issue #4 was slated to be out shortly there after, but suddenly life went sideways for Gutierrez and he found himself face-to-face with some serious medical challenges.

Just as Gutierrez was starting work on issue #4, he got sick. At first he thought it was just a cold and decided to work through it rather than taking it easy. He didn't want to fall behind on his assignment and kept late nights to get the work done, getting little sleep as a result. Which turned out to be a bad idea. "I didn't take care of myself all that great," Gutierrez told CBR News. "I have a history of bronchitis and so I usually get a lot of fluid in my lungs when I'm sick, but unfortunately by not taking care of myself, my cold developed into pneumonia which led to me going to the hospital due to my high fever and being unable to breath with all the fluid in my lungs."

Gutierrez wound up in the hospital for four days and it was definitely not a pleasant experience. "When I would try to take a deep breath, I would cough severely, coughing up fluid. With so much fluid in the lungs, the fever got higher. I was in pretty bad shape. For everyone who's dealt with pneumonia, they each have there own story of how bad it was to deal with."

While pneumonia alone would be enough to throw anyone's schedule into total disarray, Gutierrez still wasn't feeling anywhere close to 100% after his hospital stay. He continually felt exhausted and lethargic and would occasionally get severe stomach pains. Clearly there was something else going on.

From earlier blood tests his doctors took, they noticed some things they couldn't quite explain and were concerned enough that they asked Gutierrez to take a bone marrow biopsy. "Before taking the test, I had a lot of fears, especially since my sister-in-law had the same test done to see if she had lymphoma and she told me it was a very painful test. So, mentally I was scared about the pain since the needle that goes into your bone is huge and was also very scared to learn what I might actually have - I mean, cancer comes to mind when taking the test. Recently, my fears of having cancer were taken away and I was diagnosed with Hemochromatosis."

According to the National Institute of Heatlh, Hemochromatosis is an iron overload disease, an inherited disorder that causes the body to absorb and store too much iron.

Iron is an essential nutrient found in many foods and when consumed becomes part of hemoglobin, a molecule in the blood that transports oxygen from the lungs to all body tissues. While healthy people usually absorb about 10% of the iron contained in the food they eat to meet their body's needs, people with hemochromatosis absorb more than they need and the body has no natural way to rid itself of the excess iron. The iron becomes stored in body tissues and organs, particularly the liver, heart and pancreas, and damages them. Without treatment, the disease can cause organ failure.

Today, Gutierrez has to watch what he eats, mainly foods that don't produce a lot of iron, and has to have his blood taken twice a week to help reduce the amount of iron in his body. "It's better that this was caught early because if untreated I could have a lot more physical problems down the road," said Gutierrez. "Nobody on my Dad's side of the family has this problem, but I have had no contact with my Mom's side of the family since I was four and since this is a hereditary disease I'm sure it's coming from my Mom's side. I'm very happy this was caught early and I thank my doctor for wanting me to take these tests to rule out things in my blood that he noticed wasn't right. Thanks, Dr. Perez!"

As if life wasn't throwing enough challenges at Gutierrez, earlier this summer he lost his Grandfather, whom he was very close to. "My grandfather and my grandmother raised me since I was four and were really close. They moved to Fresno not long ago, so I didn't see him as much. He was basically my Dad. It's still pretty hard on me on certain day's when I see certain things or hear things that remind me of him. It's been even harder on my grandmother. They had been married almost 60yrs. So my mind and heart is with her as well a lot of the time since I'm so far away. Were looking into bring her to live back in Southern California. But yeah it's hard to talk about sometimes and emotionally it's been a lil' rough on me and my family."

But despite the numerous challenges Gutierrez has had to face in the last six months, he pushes forward. Now when he works he tends to get up once every hour to reenergize himself, but admits he's still trying to find a system that allows him to be as productive as possible. "I'm really trying not to work late night hours anymore since I don't want to get sick again with Pneumonia," said Gutierrez. "I've had it twice already in the past five years and don't want to make it three times."

As for his progress on "Lions, Tigers and Bears" #4, Gutierrez says he can finally see the finish line and the book should be out in mid-January. "I just want to say to all the LTB readers that I'm truly sorry for the long delay and I'm starting to get back on the road to recovery. When the issue finally comes out it'll hopefully be worth the wait since I feel the new pages are 100 times better than what I did in issue #3."

Through all this, Gutierrez's friends and family have been by his side throughout, offering their support and sympathy. "My wife has been my rock," said Gutierrez. "Without her I think I would be in a mental mess. She's been great through this rough time. Thanks, hon.

"I also want to say thanks to [LTB writer] Mike Bullock, who's been really understanding through all of this and super patient with me and issue #4. I know he would've loved to have issue #4 on the stands by now. So, thanks again, Mike, for putting up with my butt."

To learn more about disease and how you can help, visit the American Hemochromatosis Society web site.

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