Call to Action

Remembering the life and legacy of
Dr. Charles van der Horst.

By Jordan Hewitt

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“Feeling angry and upset without doing something is wasted energy,” reads a post on the late Dr. Charles van der Horst’s Facebook page, an avenue for his activism. His profile, now a memorial, is nearly all posts about a cause you should care about, a fundraiser you should contribute to, a person you should know. Van der Horst’s activism spanned beyond the walls of social media and into hospitals, the state legislature, nonprofits, and across the globe.

Born in the Netherlands to a Holocaust survivor and a WWII veteran, van der Horst spent his childhood attending marches and raising money for progressive causes. He traveled to the South to register African American voters during the civil rights movement, because it was the right thing to do. “Charlie believed that freedom didn’t just depend on freedom for himself, but freedom and justice for everyone,” shares Peter Leone, professor of medicine at UNC, who worked with van der Horst on HIV clinical trials in the state.

As an infectious disease researcher at UNC, van der Horst saw his career as an extension of his advocacy. In the 1980s, when young, mostly gay, men were dying in large numbers across the country, van der Horst contributed to scientific research that changed practice and treated the disease using cocktails of antiviral drugs. His research took him to South Africa and Malawi, where he led clinical trials in remote areas, setting up protocols for the treatment of HIV/AIDS transmissions from mother to child. He showed others that treatment could be accessible to anyone, anywhere. “Charlie always viewed his positions as a way to be a voice for those who didn’t have a platform for doing it,” Leone says. 

Van der Horst took the fight for justice and equality outside of his research laboratories and into the streets of Raleigh, marching alongside civil rights and Moral Monday leader, Rev. Dr. William Barber. While Moral Monday activists champion a multitude of causes, van der Horst was there for one cause in particular—his patients. Van der Horst saw his patients’ illnesses, not as a political issue, but as a larger societal problem. 

David Wohl, who completed a fellowship under van der Horst at UNC and is now a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at UNC recalls Charlie asking, “What is racism doing to my patients?’ ‘How are hunger and food insecurity affecting their lives?’ He saw his activism as an obligation, not a choice.” 

In fact, van der Horst was even arrested for protesting, and he seized that event as an opportunity to do more good, electing to carry out his community service sentence at Urban Ministries of Wake County’s Open Door Clinic. He continued to volunteer at the Open Door Clinic after his community service hours were completed, providing primary care to low-income, uninsured patients with chronic illnesses. 

“His patients probably didn’t even know that he was this renowned researcher,” says Leone. “Here he was, a Harvard, Duke, UNC–trained professor emeritus, taking care of people because he wanted to.” Van der Horst used his network at UNC to connect hepatitis C patients with a $70,000 lifesaving prescription. Under his care, 21 patients were cured of the deadly disease.

“Despite Charlie’s fame in the scientific world, changing the way we look at infectious disease, Charlie was always present to his patients,” says Dr. Peter Morris, Executive Director of Urban Ministries of Wake County, “He always treated them like they were his only patient.” Morris explains that most of the patients the nonprofit serves often lead complicated lives due to issues affecting their low-income status, and they typically need more than just a pill or a single doctor’s visit. “He acted like a case manager,” says Morris, “using his professional connections to get his patients into programs that ultimately affected their long-term health.’’ He even gave patients his cell phone number, just in case they needed him.

Van der Horst died of a cardiac event on June 15th, while on the second-to-last leg of the 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim; at 120, miles it is reportedly the longest marathon swim in the world. Van der Horst was 67 years old.

Van der Horst’s legacy lives on in the lives he touched through his lifesaving research and his friendships. Today, six of his hepatitis C patients continue to receive treatment. Van der Horst even set up a protocol for other free and charitable clinics in hopes that one day hepatitis C would be eradicated from Wake County. Many are wondering how to carry on the late doctor’s legacy. Wohl offers this advice: “Charlie taught me that if you’re asking if you should or shouldn’t do something, the answer is that you should do it.”

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