The Doctor Who Loves Patient-Care: Meet Charlie van der Horst

Feb 11, 2019

Throughout his career, Dr. Charles van der Horst has always prioritized close relationships with his patients. He was on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic in the state and opened up an AIDS ward at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 1980s. 

Even though many of his patients died in those early days, his relationships with them and compassion for their condition allowed him to develop a good understanding of the disease process. Van der Horst is retired, but he still spends much of his time treating patients at the Open Door Clinic of Urban Ministries of Wake County. His current passion is researching and curing Hepatitis C.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Dr. Charles van der Horst, an emeritus professor in medicine and infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, about his upbringing, his activism, and his work as a physician.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

If you're a human being and a physician and you listen to your patients, you become an activist. I don't just want to take care of my patients' livers and lungs. I want to take care and make sure that they are treated well by society as a whole. - Charles van der Horst

On the roots of his activism:

When [my parents] arrived in the United States it was … 1952, just after I was born. That was the McCarthy era. That was Jim Crow, and they were horrified. So believe it or not, my parents — they step off the boat [and] they join — immediately — the ACLU [and] the NAACP. When I was in middle school, my father took me to march for the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. So that was always there.

On the early days of the AIDS epidemic:

I can't overstate how difficult it was for me. And we didn't know how to treat it. We didn't even have good drugs to treat depression in those days. We didn't know how to diagnose the various infections they got. We didn't know you had to put them on antibiotics for the rest of their life to suppress it. We had no drugs to treat the virus itself. We didn't even know it was a virus in the beginning.

On working with AIDS patients:

I would develop these relationships with patients, and many, of course, are short lived. Because if you have advanced AIDS in those days, you wouldn't survive much longer than six months on average. And I would go to the autopsy of my patients after they died, so I could try to figure out what had caused their death. And then from there, I would go to their funerals and be asked to give a eulogy. And I would weep as I was giving those those eulogies … It was painful … But it just enriched my life.
 

As a physician ... I have a position of power and I have to use it for good. - Charles van der Horst

On the work he does at the Urban Ministries’ Open Door Clinic in Raleigh:

I get to spend an hour with patients. And when you have an hour with patients, you can actually work with them. And they'll lose weight. They'll start taking their medicines. They'll stop smoking. They'll stop drugs. And two of my best successes are a young man and woman who had severe alcoholism, and they both had hepatitis C infection. And they're now both sober, working, paying taxes and cured of their hepatitis C. And if you get an hour with a patient, you can do things like that.