Friends, family honor life of former UNC medical professor who died in NY swimming race

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Friends and family gathered at Beth El Synagogue Tuesday to remember the life of Dr. Charles van der Horst. He died over the weekend while swimming in a race in New York.

Van der Horst was born to a mother who survived the Holocaust and seemed to never waste a day.  Dr. Arthur Axelbank, a close friend, said “he just somehow had a way of embracing life that was just notable and rare.”

“He spent many months in Africa — living there in South Africa and Malawi, opening clinics, doing work with people directly, as well as the big picture (like) trying to understand the cause of the disease and potential cures,” Axelbank said. “Charlie continued to take care of patients. So, his work has always been direct clinical care, research, and teaching. He’s had numerous fellows, residents, (and) medical students that have known him and no doubt benefited from his role modeling and his strong principals, as well as his intellect.”

Dr. Charles van der Horst. (Courtesy of UNC)

In the early 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was filled with uncertainty and stigma, van der Horst, who was a medical professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was there from the beginning. He led the way to help make it a manageable disease rather than a death sentence.

He can be heard talking about that very passion in a video produced by UNC Health Care. In it, he says: “It’s one of the rich things about being a physician — patients open up their lives and their families, and you wrestle to get a good outcome for the patient.”

Years ago, van der Horst stood up to the North Carolina General Assembly about access to medical care.

“It is fiscally irresponsible what they are going to do. They are going to drive up costs for all of North Carolina. It’s absolutely nutty,” van der Horst said.

He was also one of the first people arrested at the inception of Moral Mondays. The leader of that movement, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, shared his thoughts with Beth El Synagogue:

I’ll never forget when Dr. Charlie van der Horst showed up in his coat to Moral Mondays. He was there because the government was denying health insurance to the people he served. But he was also there, he said because people trust their doctors.

And when a movement has to go to jail for what is right, people should see some white coats standing with it. My friend Charlie may have slipped beneath the waves of the Hudson, but I shall forever think of all those he rescued through the practice of medicine and sought to rescue from the raging tides of sickness, poverty, and injustice.

My heart goes out, especially to his wife. I’ve lost two Charleses this year — my baby brother, and now my brother in the movement. I pray as I live on that their memories will stay alive both in my heart and in the soul of continuing work for justice they had loved.

Charlie, I hope (to) see you on the other side of the river of God someday.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II

Van der Horst appears to have suffered a cardiac event during the race. Since the service was planned before the recovery of his remains, a casket was filled with meaningful reminders of his life and was then buried in Durham Hebrew Cemetery. Once his body is returned to Durham, he’ll be buried at the same cemetery.

Van der Horst leaves behind his wife Laura and his daughters Anna and Sarah.

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