Planes, pickup trucks and a pickle jar: A history that led Dr. Jorge Rubal to CEO at the Community Clinic

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photography by Mary Hurlbut

A few moments in Dr. Jorge Rubal’s company is enough to know he has a wonderful bedside manner. His smile is infectious. His style is professional but laid-back. Dr. Rubal treats the whole patient, and considers their whole circumstance. 

While his caring nature is certainly inborn, his ability to communicate his deep compassion was no doubt fine-tuned as a result of his early experiences with the neediest of patients. During his pre-med years, still undecided on a career, Cuban-born Dr. Rubal was offered a rare opportunity. 

Rubal’s first language is Spanish. That asset, combined with his then-burgeoning interest in medicine, made him a natural choice for a volunteer medical translating position in the remote locales of Mexico. 

“I was told if I could afford a seat on a Cessna, I could accompany doctors on their volunteer medical missions to Sinaloa, Mexico,” Rubal says. 

And so that’s what he did. For three years. That experience solidified his commitment to medicine, and to serving the underserved.

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Dr. Jorge Rubal, director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic

With LIGA International, known as the Flying Doctors of Mercy, Rubal traveled to Mexico two days a month. In the 48 hours they spent on the ground, their medical staff served as many as 500 patients. When their plane touched down, patients were already waiting. 

“We’d land on dirt fields,” Rubal says. “The pick-up trucks were lined up on the landing strip, waiting for us.” 

Doctors provided primary, pediatric, psychiatric and surgical care for people who otherwise had no access to medical care. Some doctors performed surgeries 24 hours a day. Others caught snatches of sleep on the roof of the surgical center in makeshift tents, or in homes offered up by locals.  

Not only did his experiences with LIGA solidify Rubal’s commitment to medicine, it sparked his interest in marrying both the art and science of medicine, and to serving the under-privileged. 

From flying doctor to family medicine: Meeting Dr. Bent

After graduating from University of California, Riverside, Dr. Rubal obtained a joint MD/MBA degree from UCI, specializing in family medicine. During his years at UCI, Rubal met Dr. Thomas Bent, then director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. They worked together in the early 2000s, and kept in touch. 

“I’d always wanted to work with Dr. Bent,” Rubal says. “I remained interested in the patient population and who we serve.” In 2013, that goal became a reality. And, in September of last year, Dr. Rubal took over as CEO and Medical Director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic.

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Dr. Rubal’s consulting room is as welcoming as the man himself

The clinic began forty-six years ago as an entirely free provider. Its mission was to care for artists and local workers. “They would pass around a pickle jar, asking people to contribute whatever they could,” Rubal says. In the 1980s it changed to a nonprofit, seeing patients on a sliding scale basis.  

“Back in the 80s,” he says, “it was the only clinic in Orange County servicing HIV patients.” In fact, many patients went on to become healthy, employed and insured, but still chose the clinic for their healthcare needs. Now their office accepts most insurance, and helps patients on a sliding scale.

But Dr. Rubal laments the changes the Affordable Care Act have brought upon them. “With every patient we treat, we lose money,” he says. “Imagine. You call a plumber to fix your pipes and every time he comes out, he loses money.” 

This has been Dr. Rubal’s biggest frustration. Through grants, fundraisers, and community support, the clinic has been able to close the financial gap each year. But it’s one of the last true community clinics. “If we didn’t have the full support from the community,” he says, “we couldn’t sustain our work.” 

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The Rubal family, L- R: Lauren, Blake (2), Jorge and Christian Rubal (5)

While in the first year of their medical internship at Harbor, UCLA Medical Center, Rubal met his wife, Dr. Lauren Rubal, now an OB/GYN who specializes in reproductive endocrinology and infertility. The couple has two boys, Christian (5) and Blake (2), and they hope for more.  

Dr. Rubal is proud of his Cuban heritage. Although born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, he didn’t begin speaking English until age six. “With so much family, so many cousins, we never watched TV.  From sunrise to sundown, we were running around the neighborhood. No one spoke English.” 

He still loves Cuban music, and has traveled to Cuba three times, hoping to go back again with his grandfather before he passes away.

In his spare time (at 5 a.m.!), Dr. Rubal is a cross-fit fanatic. He’s always been an athlete, playing baseball throughout high school and into college.  

He practices what he preaches to patients: stay healthy and stay active. 

There’s no question that Dr. Rubal has those bases covered.