March 28, 2018 marked the end of an era at Moffitt Cancer Center with the passing of thoracic oncologist, Dr. Charles Williams. On his drive to his busy clinic that morning to see lung cancer patients, a speeder ran a red light and hit Dr. Williams’ car, suddenly ending the life and the career of an extraordinary physician who embodied the highest ideals of his profession. Experienced, knowledgeable, compassionate and never-tiring are qualities that he exemplified. Dr. Williams was an attending oncologist from the first days Moffitt opened its doors 32 years ago until the day he died. The Moffitt family was devastated by the loss of this remarkable and gentle man.
When I first began my career as a thoracic surgeon at Moffitt Cancer Center 24 years ago, the first thoracic medical oncologist I met was Dr. Charles Williams. I remember well that first tumor board where Charles and I discussed a case. Even then, I realized that he was a highly experienced and thoughtful oncologist who was as practical as he was knowledgeable in evaluating patients for their optimal treatment.
Over the last several decades, I have relied on that excellent judgement and advice time and time again, even occasionally calling him from the operating room for his opinion about an unexpected finding. Dr. Williams was a firm supporter of clinical and basic research as he truly understood that the great strides made in lung cancer treatment have only come with meticulous, innovative scientific study of the disease. He offered all of his patients the opportunity to be involved in cutting edge clinical research studies.
His dedication to patients was widely recognized and let to him being named Moffitt’s Physician of the Year in 2010. In addition, he was a staunch supporter of our lung cancer research charity, Prelude to a Cure, Inc. He donated his time and financial support to help fund high risk, high reward lung cancer research, which is Prelude’s primary purpose. This year’s Innovative Research Grant from Prelude to a Cure is dedicated in the memory of Dr. Williams. Dr. Williams had a delightful dry wit and mischievous nature subtly cloaked under his calm, quiet exterior. I always looked forward to clinic or conferences when Charles was there. When we weren’t discussing a medical issue, we bantered back and forth kidding each other about a variety of topics: my favorites were his tractor that always seemed to need a new tire, his saxophone lessons, his desire to raise alpacas, and his surprising love of crazy socks. And there were plenty of jokes sent his way about my menagerie of pets, one cat in particular, Lilly, who sent “Uncle Charlie” emails with photo-shopped selfies and birthday wish lists for iPhones and pearls.
Our non-medical conversations in clinic were filled with hyperbole and respectful razzing. They brought a lightness of being to the entire clinic. How I loved that about him.Actually, everyone was in on his secret ….…his feigned gruff exterior was betrayed by his twinkling eyes. Charlie’s lightheartedness allowed us a moment of relief from the stress of seeing nice people day in and day out who were suddenly struck with a life-threatening cancer. He helped us all in thoracic oncology maintain our perspective and sanity by having a bit of levity in this setting of dire diagnoses. Dr. Williams’ patients greatly respected him and adored his care because of this. They knew instantly that they weren’t just the “stage 4 lung cancer in room 15.” His patients knew from day one that he was fighting for them to do well…that their care and well-being were personal for him. He always put his patients first. And his clinical results, professional expertise, and judgement were exceeded only by his grace.
Most people go through life never discovering their one true purpose…but not so Dr. Williams. I think he sensed that he was always destined to help and comfort his fellow man, and he did so expertly with dignity and compassion. Charles was not only my colleague. Really, he was my closest friend. We worked and talked together daily for nearly 24 years…his office was only 10 feet from mine, his door decorated with feline correspondence and spoofed photos. Although I never admitted it to him, I’m a wee bit older than Charlie and always assumed I would be the first to leave this life. But perhaps I took for granted that he would always be here. But life is like that sometimes—we are complacent about our gifts until they are gone. And only then can we see with great clarity the significance of our loss. Life is fragile. Charlie recognized this. He lived cherishing each day he was given, appreciating his marvelous family and friends. We would do well to follow in his footsteps.
It has only been one year, and yet the space that Charles Williams’ absence has left among us may seem vast. But I firmly believe he is still with us and he always will be. His essence, his very soul, if you will, is immortal and we will all be reunited someday. My human sadness at losing my friend is eased somewhat by this knowledge, and hopefully it will give some measure of comfort to all those who knew him as well. It is that hope we must also hold onto.
Charles was all about hope. He pulled back so many patients from the edge of despair during one of the darkest times of their lives with his steadfast belief in that hope. And he did it with his compassion, his caring and his joy. I think he’d want us all to continue that legacy. He’d want his patients to embrace life fully even in their fight against cancer. He’d want his colleagues to continue their healing with their compassion as well as their expertise. And Charlie would want his family to release their sorrow and know that they were his greatest joy...his everything…his reason for being. He’d surely say to us all with a playful grin, “Grab on to joy with two fists and never let go….and wear a smart pair of socks while you’re at it.”