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Jenna C. Taylor

Karen K. Kaplan,
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Director of University
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Cynthia J. Johnson, PhD
Director of Development Communications

Kevin J. Foyle, MBA, CFRE
Vice President
for Development

Nursing and Meaning:

Honoring the Service, Achievements and Wisdom of a Dean

Published: November 06, 2009 by By Cynthia Johnson, Institutional Advancement

This year, the School of Nursing celebrated an event that occurs seldom in academic administration today-the 25th anniversary of service of a dean.

Dean Starck

Dean Patricia L. Starck

Two days of festivities, "Tribute to a Pacesetter," honored not only the longevity of Dean Patricia L. Starck in her position of leadership at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Nursing but the quality of that leadership and the repercussions of her work on nursing education throughout the state and the nation.

The announcement just a few weeks later of another honor bestowed on Dean Starck sheds light on the philosophy that has guided her in her work and life, and her distinctive contribution to the definition of what care and caring mean.

Honoring a Leader

Shine also was among the more than 300 people who attended the luncheon held May 29, 2009 at the Hilton Houston Post Oak, as was UTHealth President Larry R. Kaiser, M.D., to talk about Starck's contributions to nursing and to her institution along with guest speakers Gwen Sherwood, Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Nursing; Ann Scanlon McGinity, Chief Nurse Executive and Senior Vice President, Operations, The Methodist Hospital; Sandra K Hanneman, Professor of Nursing Research at UTHealth School of Nursing; and Holly Jeffreys, D.N.P., 2009, a member of the first graduating class of the Doctorate in Nursing Practice. Also attending were UTHealth Development Board Chair Eugene H. Vaughn and Dean Starck's family. Starck noted that her twin daughters gave up their plans to attend "a party school" in another state to move to Houston with their mother when she took the job.

A Georgia native, Starck is known affectionately as a steel magnolia; luncheon invitations and table decorations illustrated the theme. The event was chaired by Margaret "Peggy" A. Barnett, founding chairman of PARTNERS, the School's volunteer support group, who has recently been honored by the creation of a PARTNERS endowed professorship in her name at the School of Nursing. Mrs. Barnett is also a former Chair of the UTHealth Development Board.

George R. Farris, chair of the School of Nursing Advisory Council, took the podium to introduce the School's new Accelerated Ph.D. program, which will provide more faculty in order to increase enrollment capacity in nursing programs in Texas and the Gulf Coast region. The George Foundation has already made a generous challenge gift to the innovative program. The funding campaign honors Dean Starck.

Also among the guests was Honorary Committee member Dr. Robert C. Barnes, Head and Professor of Counseling and Human Development at the Irvin School of Education at Hardin-Simmons University. In a letter congratulating Dean Starck on what he described as the "richly deserved occasion in your honor," Barnes spoke of her many accomplishments. ". . . Your beautiful mind, firm leadership, and stellar contributions through research, publications, and presentations have helped establish and nurture the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy. where we teach involving the body, mind, and spirit in the healing process. . . . In the same letter, he told her that she was to receive the Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award at the upcoming meeting of the World Congress of Logotherapy.

A Context for Care

Logotherapy is the philosophical approach developed by Viktor Frankl to understand how human beings deal with suffering and define meaning in their lives, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

When Dean Patricia Starck was a doctoral student at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, her clinical work focused on patients with injuries to the spinal cord. Some of these patients were motivated to move on in life in spite of their limitations, making the most of their remaining abilities. Others with similar injuries were developing complications, not participating in their own care, were bitter. She wondered what nurses could do to move the patient in a positive direction.

Eventually that wonder was formulated as a subject of scholarly research. When she came upon the name of Viktor Frankl in a book she was reading, she decided he might have at least part of the answer. She wrote to Frankl, Holocaust survivor, doctor, psychologist, author of the classic philosophical work Man's Search for Meaning and one of the world's greatest authorities on suffering. He wrote back.

It was the beginning of a long friendship and of Starck's groundbreaking work applying Frankl's logotherapy—which previously had been used only with patients in need of psychological or psychiatric care—to patients with physical disabilities. 

The subject of her doctoral dissertation was the testing of a nursing model that incorporated logotherapy in working with patients. Starck later developed a test to determine to what extent the subject feels he or she has meaning and purpose in life and the subject's motivation to seek noetic goals, or new purpose in life. Referred to as the "MIST," the Meaning in Suffering Test is still in use throughout the world.

Logotherapy has not only guided her in caring for patients; it also became the philosophy that guides Starck in all of her interactions with others. She notes, "It is useful as an underlying philosophy for administration because everyone needs to feel they are contributing to a worthy purpose." It is, she concludes, "Good in crisis, in disappointment," and "useful when you work with human beings."

In Dallas on June 19, an even longer record of service was recognized when Starck's decades of caring for the whole patient earned this tribute:

"In grateful appreciation for a lifetime of distinguished contributions and sterling leadership in promoting the work of Viktor A. Frankl throughout the world."