February 2023 News Perspective Online

Pursuit of Life

Renowned physician Dr. Kathryn Kirkland, will speak in Dallas on February 28 as part of “Pursuit of Life: How Literature Enhances Healthcare,” an interdisciplinary event exploring the intersection of healthcare and the humanities.

The two-part program will begin at 8 a.m. at Baylor University Medical Center with Dr. Kirkland presenting “Reading Illness: Clinicians, Patients, and Story” as part of the medical center’s Medical Ethics/Internal Medicine Grand Rounds.

Later that same day, Dr. Kirkland will speak at a luncheon beginning at noon at Prothro Great Hall in the Elizabeth Perkins Prothro building.

Both the Grand Rounds and the luncheon are free and open to the public.

Advance registration is required for the luncheon, where a free lunch will be offered to the first 100 registrants. To register for the luncheon, visit

The 8 a.m. Grand Rounds event takes place in person at 17 Roberts, Davis Auditorium, on the campus of Baylor University Medical Center. To attend virtually, visit this link:

The events are sponsored by SMU Perkins School of Theology, SMU Cary M. Maguire Ethics Center, SMU DCII Scott Hawkins Fund, SMU Graduate Program in Religious Studies, Bridwell Library, the Perkins Office of External Programs, and BSWHealth Office of Clinical Ethics and Palliative Care.

Palliative care is specialized medical care for people living with a serious illness. The field includes hospice care, for those near the end of life, as well as supportive palliative care for those patients who may continue to receive curative care.

Kirkland is the Dorothy and John J. Byrne, Jr., Distinguished Chair in Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth College. She is known for her work using poetry and literature to help physicians to hone their listening skills in working with patients, leading to deeper relationships of mutual trust, which are linked to better outcomes and experiences for patients.

At the luncheon, Kirkland will lead a workshop illustrating how poetry enhances the lives of patients and healthcare personnel. Lindsey Johnson Edwards, a doctoral student in SMU’s Graduate Program in Religious Studies, will respond with a patient’s perspective. Finally, attendees will hear a brief introduction to a new book, The Pursuit of Life: The Promise and Challenge of Palliative Care, co-edited by Robert Fine, M.D., of Baylor Scott and White in Dallas and Jack Levison of SMU Perkins School of Theology, along with SMU doctoral candidate Kelsey Spinnato. Kirkland contributed a chapter to the book describing her work, titled “Teaching Clinicians to Read.”

While the events are open to the public, they will be of special interest to caregivers, medical professionals, chaplains, pastors and clergypersons, and others who provide spiritual and physical support to people living with serious illness, as well as students and scholars with an interest in the intersection of healthcare and the humanities.

Fruit of Collaboration

Jack Levison

The conference is one result of a years-long collaboration in the areas of spirituality and palliative care between Jack Levison and Robert Fine, who co-organized the event along with Steve Long, Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at SMU. Jack Levison is W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at Perkins. Robert L. Fine, M.D., is Clinical Director, Office of Clinical Ethics and Palliative Care at Baylor Scott and White Health.

Robert Fine
Robert Fine

Levison and Fine both attended the 2018 Spirituality for Life Conference, an ecumenical gathering sponsored by the Vatican, Houston Methodist Hospital and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. That event brought together palliative care and spiritual leaders to explore ways to integrate spirituality into palliative clinical practice, and inspired Levison and Fine to develop a book, The Pursuit of Life, which they co-edited with Spinnato. Many of the speakers at the Spirituality for Life conference contributed chapters to the book.

Fine said that spirituality and palliative care have natural connections; both fields seek to address the whole person, body and soul. Unlike other medical specialists, palliative care specialists do not focus on specific organs: cardiology for the heart, neurology for the brain, hepatology for the liver, and so on.

“Rather, palliative care specialists lessen all sorts of pain, including the total pain, the total suffering of those facing the most serious of illnesses,” Fine said. “They do not seek to treat disease, but rather to diagnose and treat the suffering that inevitably falls on the shoulders of those who face disease.” Suffering may involve physical pain but also social, emotional and spiritual pain.

Levison adds that spirituality is shared through stories; the Bible begins by telling the story of pain. Storytelling offers possibilities for helping address spiritual and emotional pain, as Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in his book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer: “Medicine … begins with storytelling … Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells its own story to explain diseases.”

By bringing together people of different disciplines, Levison added, The Pursuit of Life gathering highlights the value of a university like SMU.

“This is an example of bringing together people from a wide range of disciplines for the betterment of humanity,” he said.

About the Book

The Pursuit of Life: The Promise and Challenge of Palliative Care (Penn State University Press, December 20, 2022) examines crucial concerns in palliative care, including the proper balance between comfort and cure for the patient, the integration of spiritual well-being, and the challenges of providing care in the absence of basic medical services and supplies.

Sections of the book look at the early history of the discipline; the role of poetry, prose, plays, and other aspects of the humanities in the practice of palliative care; essential current issues in the field, including autonomy, the use of opioids, and the impact of artificial intelligence on the evolution of palliative care; and the spiritual dimensions of pain and suffering.

Chapters were submitted by leaders in palliative care, healthcare and spirituality, including Robin W. Lovin, former Perkins dean and Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics emeritus at Southern Methodist University, and Charles Millikan, Vice President for Spiritual Care and Values Integration for Houston Methodist.

“This is a beautiful, diverse, wise book about the experience of working in palliative care and the personal, collegial, cultural, ethical, moral, practical, and clinical challenges that clinicians practicing in our field confront,” writes Susan Block, MD, of Harvard Medical School in reviewing the volume. “The editors and authors have crafted a deep portrait of what it means to work in the liminal space between life and death in palliative care.”