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Moffitt doctor killed in crash remembered for treating patients like family

Oncologist Dr. Charles C. Williams Jr. had worked at Moffitt Cancer Center since the institution opened its doors in 1986. He died in a fiery three-car crash Wednesday in Temple Terrace. [Moffitt Cancer Center]
Oncologist Dr. Charles C. Williams Jr. had worked at Moffitt Cancer Center since the institution opened its doors in 1986. He died in a fiery three-car crash Wednesday in Temple Terrace. [Moffitt Cancer Center]
Published Mar. 29, 2018

TAMPA — Dr. Charles Canaan Williams Jr. never gave up hope on his patients, even when the odds were stacked against them.

Williams, 70, a lung cancer specialist and a senior member of the Thoracic Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, died in a fiery three-car crash Wednesday morning not far from his home in Temple Terrace.

His peers, colleagues and former patients mourned his death on Thursday, taking to social media to pay tribute to his kind and calm demeanor, even when they were in the gravest moments of fighting terminal cancer cases.

"The Moffitt family is devastated by the loss of Dr. Williams," Alan List, president and chief executive at Moffitt Cancer Center, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "He has been part of our family since the cancer center opened its doors back in 1986 and through the years has fought courageously alongside countless number of patients going through their cancer journey."

Williams graduated from medical school at the University of Pittsburgh. He completed an internal medicine residency program and a clinical fellowship in medical oncology-hematology at the University of South Florida in Tampa in the late 1970s.

He spent the bulk of his career with Moffitt, where he focused on all types of lung cancer treatments. Williams is survived by his wife and two adult daughters.

"What always struck me was how Dr. Williams always focused on what the patient's desires were, as opposed to what he could offer them," said Dr. Robert Keenan, a fellow thoracic surgeon and chief medical office at Moffitt, who often shared patients with Williams. "No matter how busy he was, he would make time to accommodate patients last minute in his clinic, so that the patient wouldn't have to make a return visit. That really strikes a chord when a physician is willing to do that."

Firefighters found Williams dead in his car after extinguishing flames following the 7:10 a.m. accident at the intersection of Fowler and Gillette avenues, the Temple Terrace Police Department said.

Williams collided with one car and was pushed into another, causing his car to burst into flames. The driver of the second car was taken to the hospital with injuries that weren't life-threatening and the driver and passenger in the third car were not injured. The collision is under investigation.

John Sinnott was a young doctor fresh out of residency when he first met Williams, who was practicing oncology-hematology — the diagnosis and treatment of blood diseases and cancer.

"I remember not being especially interested in hematology because unfortunately, there aren't a lot of great patient outcomes," said Sinnott, now the chairman of internal medicine at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine. "Many patients die. But he changed my mind completely. The lessons I learned from him were invaluable."

Sinnott says he still remembers a line Williams said often, which he uses regularly when mentoring medical students and young physicians to this day.

"I'll never forget when he told me, 'It's not our job to relieve pain, it's our job to relieve suffering. The way we relieve suffering is by talking to patients about what's happening. We sit on the bed with patients to be at eye level. We make eye contact with them. And we tell them, together we're going to fight this battle.'?"

In his own personal life, Williams also experienced the disease he spent his life fighting: His wife, Faye Williams, died of breast cancer in 1995. He remarried, to Deborah Simanteris, in 2004.

When Meredith Metlzer's father, Robert Pecci, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2010, he was given six months to live. Metlzer took her father to Moffitt for a second opinion, and she says she's glad she did. Her 67-year-old father lived another two years while under Williams' care.

"Dr. Williams never really gave my dad a bad sentence, even though his lung cancer was inoperable," said Metlzer, who lives in Wesley Chapel. "He just stated the facts and his course of treatment. He never made anything sound scary."

She remembers a time when her father was hospitalized and Williams came in with a positive and uplifting attitude.

"He felt like family. He had this amazing bedside manner. He wasn't just treating the disease. He was always treating the patient and all of us."

Annette Scalise, who was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer four years ago, echoed that sentiment. Williams made her feel like her outcome mattered personally to him.

"I'm still here today because of him," said Scalise, who lives in Palm Harbor. "He was always so compassionate and so concerned. Every time I would get nervous, he was good at keeping me calm, telling me not to worry and explaining all the options. He's going to be truly missed."

Dr. Charles Taylor knew Williams as a young doctor when they both were in residency at USF. Twenty years later, they'd end up neighbors in Temple Terrace.

"He was an excellent doctor," said Taylor, who retired in recent years. "He definitely liked to goof off in our early days, but was the type of intern who excelled over his peers, and he ended up becoming a great doctor at Moffitt known for his great manner with people."

What Taylor will miss most is clowning around with the guy next door.

"We never had a real serious conversation around here, we'd just crack jokes," he said. "I'm really going to miss my friend."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.