Paulk selected as palliative care distinguished professorship’s first holder

Dr. Elizabeth Paulk
Dr. Elizabeth Paulk

Dr. Elizabeth Paulk’s dedication to exceptional palliative care has led to her selection as the inaugural holder of the Distinguished Professorship in Palliative Care, in Honor of Steven Leach, M.D.

“I am deeply moved by this honor,” said Dr. Paulk, Director of UT Southwestern’s Palliative Care Fellowship Program and Associate Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program. “I feel that it recognizes the work our whole team has done over the past 20 years at the University Hospitals, Parkland, Children’s Medical Center, and the VA North Texas Health Care System. I am grateful to Dr. Leach for making this Professorship possible, and for all the support he gives our team.”

The Distinguished Professorship is supported by major gifts from Leland and Eunice Carter and from Charles Hudson recognizing the work of Dr. Leach.

“Palliative care is something that touches almost all of us at one time or another,” Dr. Leach, a Professor of Internal Medicine, wrote in his letter endorsing that the philanthropic support go to the specialty. “While not lifesaving, it certainly fulfills our obligation to provide compassionate care. I have never seen a group of providers who are more mission-driven. Yet it is a field that remains underserved.”

Dr. Paulk said funds from the Distinguished Professorship will support UT Southwestern research efforts in ethnic disparities in end-of-life care, bereavement support for patients and families, and educational interventions to improve the quality of end-of-life care provided across the system.

A faculty member since 1999, Dr. Paulk is also Professor of Internal Medicine. Her memories of a woman who cared for her and her sisters drew her to the specialty of palliative care.

“My parents worked full time, so Rosa Williams cared for my sisters and me after school,” Dr. Paulk said. “Rosa was a single mother of seven kids with limited education who worked full time at two different jobs. She was an extraordinary person, profoundly kind, and totally selfless.”

Years later, when Dr. Paulk attended Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, the two were unexpectedly reunited during her clinical rotations at the county hospital. “I ran into her waiting for an appointment in the Gynecologic Oncology Clinic. My mother had not wanted to upset me before exams by letting me know Rosa was sick.”

Dr. Paulk helped her negotiate the county health system. “One treatment after another failed to help Rosa improve,” Dr. Paulk recalled. “Finally, one day she phoned to ask me to help her understand why the doctors had told her not to come back for any more appointments. It turned out she was receiving hospice care – but had not been taught what that meant. Later in the week, she died.”

A trail of end-of-life experiences affected Dr. Paulk to her core. “Every time I came to work at Parkland [Memorial Hospital], I saw patients and families who reminded me of Rosa, and of the kind of care I wished I had been able to give her,” she said. “I became increasingly aware of how our system was failing people as cure was no longer an option, and felt driven to do something to try and change that.

“I hope that in our way the Palliative Care team is helping patients and their families find some comfort, dignity, and meaning as they reflect on their lives and what they have meant. I cannot change Rosa’s experience, but I hope she would be proud of what I have been able to do in her memory.” 

Dr. Leach holds the Irene Wadel and Robert Atha, Jr. Professorship of Internal Medicine, in Honor of John W. Burnside, M.D.