Charles van der Horst, it seemed, was always in motion.
Between championing accessible healthcare and treating patients around the world, the doctor and activist filled his days doing what he cared about most.
But it was van der Horst’s smaller passions and projects that capture the fun-loving and enthusiastic nature of the man that was a bedrock in his community.
Van der Horst died at age 67 on Friday, June 14, following an apparent cardiac event at the end of a marathon swim in the Hudson River.
“Today, tomorrow, for many days we will weep, but as Charlie taught us through his life, we must not be paralyzed by pain,” Beth El Synagogue Rabbi Daniel Greyber said in van der Horst’s eulogy. “Step by step, we must move beyond the pain and embrace life with a passionate fierceness; to take up his task and rescue others from raging tides of sickness, poverty and injustice.”
The legacy van der Horst left behind is one of love and determination. The former UNC professor of medicine worked on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, treating patients with respect and compassion while contributing to research that made the disease treatable rather than a death sentence.
Van der Horst took his work outside the walls of UNC, caring for patients in Malawi and South Africa, among other places. Following his retirement in 2015, van der Horst volunteered at the free Open Door Clinic in Raleigh, where he created a Hepatitis C treatment program.
The doctor also donned his white coat as one of the faces of the Moral Monday movement.
“He was a doctor in our community and advocating for the marginalized and the disadvantaged,” said Faisal Khan, founder and director of the Carolina Peace Center. “And that’s exactly what he was doing. He may not have been prescribing medicine, but he was prescribing justice for the people that didn’t have access to good healthcare.”
Van der Horst, along with his siblings, used Holocaust reparation funds to establish the JMA and Sonja van der Horst Distinguished Professorship in Jewish Studies at UNC in honor of his parents to continue teaching the lessons of the genocide.
In his private life, van der Horst was a dedicated member of the Beth El Synagogue in Durham.
Within his synagogue, van der Horst built a tight-knit group of friends, known as his chavurah. The families in his circle were there for each other through life’s biggest moments.
“To have lost the leader of the group, and Charlie and his wife Laura have been the leaders of our group for so many years, has really taken its toll on the group,” said Marty Pomerantz, a member of the chavurah.
Pomerantz said van der Horst gave his own special gift to the group’s children for each of their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
"Charlie, who was already a renowned researcher and intellectual and a very, very busy physician, he took it upon himself to make these elaborate cakes for each of the kids," Pomerantz said.
Van der Horst was also an ardent athlete. He completed marathons and triathlons and was a long-time swimmer. He began training for marathon open-water swims in the last year.
Van der Horst was always doing something to better himself and those around him, Pomerantz said.
“He was just incredible in how he attacked anything, from caring for his patients, to political justice, to creating these wild, creative cakes,” Pomerantz said. “And he did it with unbelievable gusto and enthusiasm.
“His mind was just in constant motion, and he was a driven person. I can’t explain it. I’ve never really met anybody that was as driven as he was in so many different ways.”
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