In one of the last photos taken of him, shared by the sponsors of a swim marathon on New York’s Hudson River last week, Charles Michael van der Horst was heading into the chilly waters the way he jumped into pretty much everything else: all in, feet first.
Van der Horst, 67, was a preeminent UNC researcher and clinician who helped develop groundbreaking treatment protocols for HIV/AIDS and, after that once-terrifying virus had been tamed to a manageable disease, inspired a new generation of scientists to tackle Ebola. He was a compassionate doctor who turned a community service stint into a campaign to eradicate Hepatitis C in Wake County. He was a social justice advocate willing to go to jail to draw attention to the needs of the state’s uninsured.
Van der Horst was a formidable athlete, a respectable cook and a man whose outgoing personality served as a conduit through which countless people became connected as colleagues and friends.
“He was the most outgoing person I ever knew,” said Dr. David Wohl, who came to UNC to work with van der Horst in 1994 and is now a professor of medicine in the university’s Division of Infectious Diseases, co-director of HIV Services for the N.C. Department of Correction and co-director of the N.C. AIDS Training and Education Center.
“Charlie was one of those people who ... everything changes when they walk into the room,” Wohl said. “You trust him. You admire him. He tells it like it is. He’ll make you laugh. He’ll make you cry. And I think he used his powers for good.”
Van der Horst disappeared under the surface of the river Friday afternoon during the next-to-last leg of the 8 Bridges marathon. He was presumed dead but as of Monday evening, his body had not been found.
Van der Horst was born in the town of Hilversum, in the Netherlands, before his parents emigrated to the U.S. His mother, the late Sonja Eichenbaum Teichholz van der Horst, was a Holocaust survivor. She met his father in an internment camp, where Johannes Martinus Arnold van der Horst worked as an interpreter during World War II.
‘Constantly driving forward’
Charlie’s younger brother, Roger, a former writer and editor for the News & Observer who lives in Durham, said that while his brother was deeply dedicated to many causes that begged for his time, Charlie always treated others as if they were the most important thing in his world.
“He was constantly moving. He was constantly driving forward. But he made me feel as if the only thing on his mind was me. And I’m sure he made others feel the same way.”
In a video of a speech he gave at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, which he joined in 1982, Charlie van der Horst said that when his parents came to the U.S. in the 1950s — drawn by its postwar promise of opportunity — they were surprised to find their new home was plagued by prejudice just like the rest of the world. They went to work, he said, for the NAACP and the ACLU. In the 1960s, they took their young children to march for civil rights and voting rights.
He told the congregation the story of a German soldier hitting his mother in the head with a rifle butt when he was rounding up her family. She later went outside, he said, to find her father and sister dead, and her mother gone.
“If my siblings and I learned anything from our mother, it was that she moved beyond that unfathomable pain and embraced life with a passionate fierceness,” he said.
Van der Horst emulated his mother’s approach.
After high school, he came to North Carolina to attend Duke University, where he was captain of the varsity swim team, graduating in 1974. He went to medical school at Harvard, graduating in 1979.
He joined UNC in the 1980s, when AIDS was a rapidly growing epidemic in the U.S. and around the world. He helped start a center for the study of AIDS at UNC in part, Wohl said, to get research money flowing into the state to help pay for the high cost of drugs to treat those dealing with the disease.
Wohl accepted a fellowship to work under van der Horst in 1994, he said, turning down an offer from Harvard because he thought he could accomplish more working under this man who “wore his feelings about things on his sleeve.”
His first day on the job, he said, van der Horst gave him an assignment that he thought was just busy work, but it turned out to be an important project that landed the young researcher his first publication as a lead author in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Charlie created the daylight that I and others walked through,” Wohl said.
Research that van der Horst led or contributed to in the U.S., Malawi and South Africa helped develop effective treatments for AIDS patients with meningitis and protections for the babies born to mothers with AIDS, Wohl said.
Compassion and courage
Several former colleagues interviewed described van der Horst as compassionate and courageous. They said they admired how committed he was to stand up for what he believed was right in healthcare and other civil rights issues.
“He fought many good fights,” said David Jolly, a former colleague who met van der Horst through the Lesbian and Gay Health project, which was the first AIDS service organization in North Carolina. “He was committed to making sure other people around North Carolina knew how to treat patients with HIV and how to deal with them on a human level.”
Gov. Roy Cooper posted on Facebook: “Dr. Charlie Van Der Horst’s life and work were defined by compassion. From his time volunteering in North Carolina’s free clinics to his efforts on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, he made our state and our world better.”
Stella Kirkendale knew van der Horst since she started HIV work in the early 1990s and viewed him as her brother. She worked closely with him when she was the director of Community Education at the AIDS Service Agency of North Carolina where, she said, he was one of their clients’ favorite doctors.
Van der Horst’s compassion, humility and brilliance are what set him apart, Kirkendale said.
“He was an incredible humanitarian, he walked the walk in public and global health,” Kirkendale said. “He’s the embodiment of what a good doctor should be like.”
Kirkendale was familiar with his work with the UNC Project in Malawi, where he was researching mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, specifically through breastfeeding. In 2014, they worked together for the Ebola Clinical Research Consortium, a collaboration between Duke and UNC. They were both also activists with Moral Mondays and the national Poor People’s Campaign fighting for Medicaid expansion.
One of their last conversations was at Reverend William Barber’s recent trespassing trial. They talked about the upcoming swim in the Hudson. Kirkendale was an avid swimmer who said she and van der Horst were both born with gills.
“We’re sad to lose him, but I think he’s swimming in peace. He’s swimming in power and he’s always going to be with us.”
Success in the pool
Bob Crowder, 63, first knew van der Horst as the committed and caring team captain of the 1973 Duke swim team, then as the glue that held a group of about 20 swimmers and friends together more than 40 years later.
Van der Horst was the type of captain who helped his teammates find success in the pool, encouraged them to train the right way and led them morally as students and as people, Crowder said. And when the swimmers posed for photos after early Saturday morning workouts while shivering in their suits, van der Horst put his arms around as many guys as he could. Everytime. He was always one to reach out and that defined him as a person, said Crowder, who plans on placing some of those photos of van der Horst wrapping his arms around his teammates in the casket at the funeral.
Decades after their time at Duke, Crowder reconnected with van der Horst and for nine years he and his wife swam with van der Horst at least once a week. They had breakfast together just as often and traveled to U.S. Masters Swimming meets all over the world.
Crowder said van der Horst kept intricate records and graphs of every swim over 30 years trying to find ways to improve his times and share his findings with other swimmers to help them.
“He was committed to excellence in everything,” Crowder said. “Every breath he took he was thinking of bettering the world and bettering himself.”
Several years ago, Wohl said, van der Horst turned his attention to the new challenge of fighting the deadly Ebola virus. But his aggressive style, which had been effective for so much of his career, was off-putting to researchers in this new field, Wohl said. Van der Horst regrouped, Wohl said, retired from the university and dedicated himself to other projects and a new, less forceful attitude.
He got involved in the Moral Monday protests, led by Barber, that began in 2013 in opposition to actions by the state’s Republican-led legislature.
Barber said in a phone interview Monday that the first time he met van der Horst, the white-coat-clad doctor walked up and kissed him on both cheeks.
“I said, ‘Who are you?’” Barber recalled. “He said, ‘I am Dr. Charles van der Horst and I am here to let people know this is not just about black people. This is about all people. People are dying because of a lack of health care.”
Van der Horst chastised the legislature for choosing not to expand Medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands of state residents with no medical insurance.
Van der Horst was one of many protesters arrested during Moral Monday events. He was convicted of trespassing and sentenced to community service, which he elected to perform at the Open Door Clinic, run by Urban Ministries of Wake County.
After completing his community service hours, van der Horst stayed on, said Dr. Peter Morris, executive director of Urban Ministries. He became convinced that it would be possible to eradicate Hepatitis C in Wake County, and he enlisted the help of several other clinics in the city. So far, Morris said, at least 17 patients have been cured, in part because van der Horst offered them care without judgment.
“His patients loved him,” said Morris, who knew van der Horst when Morris was studying at UNC himself. “You could imagine that someone so very intellectual could be aloof. He was anything but. He was able to relate to his patients. He didn’t lecture them in any way. They would reach out to him in the evenings and on weekends and he was there for them. They didn’t feel they were bothering some busy famous person.”
Van der Horst advocated for the poor in columns he wrote from the Durham Herald-Sun. He also wrote a column about why he swam, which he said brought him peace and helped him to deal with depression.
Roger said the family was somewhat comforted by the fact that van der Horst died doing something he loved.
He is survived by his wife, Laura Svetkey of Chapel Hill; his daughters, Anna Svetkey van der Horst of Salt Lake City and Sarah Svetkey van der Horst of Chapel Hill NC; Sarah’s husband, Eddie Alcorn; Anna’s partner, Louis Nichols; his sisters, Tatjana Schwendinger (Robert Schwendinger) and Jacqueline Sergent (Herve Sergent); his brother, Roger van der Horst; his mother-in-law, Marcia Tuchman Svetkey Wallace; his sister-in-law, Susan Svetkey (Stephen Houze); his brothers-in-law, Jonathan Svetkey (Ilana Virchis), Benjamin Wallace (Gwen Griffith), Benjamin Svetkey (Lenka Ulrichova) and Ford Weisberg (husband of the late Nancy Weisberg); and many beloved nieces, nephews and their children.
Funeral services will take place at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Beth El Synagogue, 1004 Watts Street in Durham. A casket containing meaningful reminders from Charlie’s life will be buried at the Durham Hebrew Cemetery after the funeral service. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for donations to progressive causes.