North Carolina, Public Health

Charlie van der Horst – gone too soon

June 17, 2019

A remarkable man who made the world a better place

Dr. van der Horst with then-Senator Barack Obama in April 2008. From a Facebook post on March 21, 2019.

Charlie van der Horst, MD, died Friday, June 14, during an ambitious, multi-day swim marathon on the Hudson River in New York. I’ve done one land marathon, but I cannot even imagine swimming 19 miles a day in open water – at age 67. According to news reports, Charles was completing the next-to-last stage when he went under. The search for his body continued Sunday. Event organizer New York Open Water and Charlie’s family released statements over the weekend. Thinking of John Donne’s famous words, I feel diminished by his loss.

As far as I could tell, Charles did nothing in small measure! Besides being a competitive, driven, accomplished athlete, he was a groundbreaking, compassionate AIDS researcher and physician, part of the brilliant infectious disease team at UNC’s School of Medicine that did much of their work in Malawi, leading an AIDS treatment trial that changed the face of AIDS prevention. Charles cared deeply and felt intensely about issues of race, equity and fairness. He was one of the people who stood at Moral Mondays in partnership with the Rev. William J. Barber II. Charles, his wife, Laura Svetkey, MD, two daughters and their many friends embody values we need so badly today – such as justice, health care for all, organizations that do the right things and environmental justice. From that perspective, his loss feels particularly infinite. His sister, Jackie Sargent, MPH, is mayor of Oxford, N.C., a graduate of our school, and until May, was on our Public Health Foundation Board. Daughter Sarah is married to one of our alumni. Dr. van der Horst’s mother, Sonja, was apparently a woman of remarkable grit and courage who, as a teenager during World War II, escaped death but lost her parents and sister to the Nazis.

Photo courtesy of Karen Glanz, from Facebook.

Charles’ network was vast. Friend, colleague and University of Pennsylvania professor Karen Glanz wrote yesterday,

I first became acquainted with Charles from a Facebook group – ‘Did you swim today?’ – that my Hawaii open-water swimming friends got me involved in. He was a frequent poster, an impressive athlete, and seemed like a real happy and social mensch. I never met him in person, but figured that UNC friends probably knew him as well. When he went missing in the Hudson River, I followed anxiously, and then sadly, as it was clear he wouldn’t survive. Like a lot of swimmers in the ‘network,’ I swam in his memory with his initials on my breathing side arm (see pic). Since then, of course, I’ve learned a lot more about him – all of it remarkable and making his death all the more tragic.

I was awed by Charlie, admired him and appreciated his candor in talking about his own struggles in life. While he did so many things that were big and important, what I remember especially, with deep gratitude, is how caring and kind he was to my parents, now both deceased, whom he came to know socially after they moved to Chapel Hill in the early 1990s.

The world lost a hero last Friday.

Dr. van der Horst (center, holding “improved medicare for all” sign), in February 2017, marched with more than 200 health professionals and students in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, in support of a broad range of issues from health care, Black Lives Matter, immigration, labor laws and minimum wages, environmental justice, LGBTQ rights and voting rights. On his Facebook page, where he posted this photo, Charlie wrote “Particularly proud of the students from Duke, UNC and elsewhere – they are the next generation with a fire in their bellies who will take the struggle onwards. They stand on the shoulders of students who came before them. Photo by the inestimable Jenny Warburg.”

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.