Apr 152013


Dr. Samuel F. Sears

Dr. Samuel F. Sears

“I have referred to this award as the academic Heisman for North Carolina.”

Dr. Samuel F. Sears

award recipient

By Spaine Stephens

ECU News Services

Saturday, April 13, 2013


PEMBROKE — An East Carolina University professor has received the highest faculty honor bestowed by the University of North Carolina for his work to improve quality of life in heart patients.

The UNC Board of Governors named Dr. Samuel F. Sears, director of the doctoral program in health psychology, on Friday as the winner of the 2013 O. Max Gardner Award.

The honor, which comes with a $20,000 stipend, pays tribute to one faculty member within the UNC system who, during the current academic year, made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race. Sears accepted the award at the Board of Governors’ monthly meeting at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Sears received a standing ovation from the 150 people in attendance, including his parents, wife and sons, fellow ECU faculty members and Chancellor Steve Ballard.

“I have referred to this award as the academic Heisman for North Carolina,” Sears said. “The recognition allows me to magnify the challenges of the future. Universities like ours have to respond.”

“You richly deserve this award,” UNC Board of Governors Chairman Peter Hans said.

Sears is the world’s leading expert on the psychological implications for patients living with life-saving heart devices. The implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) can deliver a shock as strong as a mule’s kick when it detects potentially life-threatening heart arrhythmias. Sears works with patients to alleviate fear and anxiety in anticipation of shocks and to improve their overall quality of life.


A worldwide impact

Sears serves as a psychologist, patient advocate, researcher, and professor. One day, he might be mentoring students in a lab at the East Carolina Heart Institute at the Brody School of Medicine. The next, he could be in Europe addressing patients with recently placed ICDs. His goals are to provide the latest information on coping strategies and to prepare tomorrow’s health psychologists to reach more patients.

“ICDs save lives,” he said, “but it depends on patients being able to accept the technology and manage the disease. A little coaching along the way can be very helpful.”

Approximately one million Americans live with ICDs. Many also live in fear of shock and change their lifestyles to avoid it, Sears said.

Sears is the most prolific author on living with ICDs and has published more than 100 articles in medical journals on the psychological aspects of cardiology. He founded ICD Coach to produce mobile-phone applications and multimedia patient-education materials for ICD patients and families. Sears also manages a weekly psychologic clinic at the East Carolina Heart Institute for heart patients. He gives about 50 speeches worldwide each year, reaching other professionals as well as more than 1,000 patients and their families annually.

Practitioners from across the world supported his nomination for the O. Max Gardner Award, mirroring the worldwide impact of his work on individuals’ lives. So did his ECU colleagues.

“Dr. Sears is truly deserving of this statewide recognition,” said Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood Jr., senior associate vice chancellor for health sciences and professor of cardiovascular sciences. “His work with patients who have major heart-rhythm disturbances is extremely important. He represents ECU’s best. I am very proud that he is a member of the East Carolina Heart Institute at ECU.”

Chitwood won the O. Max Gardner Award in 2004 for his work in minimally invasive cardiothoracic surgery.

Strong impression

Sears, who came to ECU from the University of Florida in 2007, makes a strong impression as a teacher and mentor to students from the undergraduate to doctoral level. He teaches in the psychology and cardiovascular sciences departments.

The subject matter can become complex, but Sears knows how to draw upon personal experience to reach students. When he was a student and walk-on football player at the University of Florida, he found himself sidelined with an injury. The emotional impact of the injury made him curious about how physical setbacks affect people psychologically.

Sears also uses real-world events to relate to his students and how they must view the world in order to change it. Those topics evolve.

“Dr. Sears teaches his students…that new technologies are not something to cower from,” doctoral student Kate Cutitta said, “but to embrace and understand completely. Without patient psychological security and acceptance of medical devices, hard work of the medical team is futile.”

Cutitta, who plans to work with young adults who have congenital heart diseases, said learning from someone of Sears’ caliber is a statement to the quality of opportunity at ECU.

“ECU may often be overlooked, but it is a powerhouse of resources … ,” she said.

Doctoral student Kevin Woodrow said Sears’ passion and sense of inclusion engages students to be confident in patient care.

“He provides opportunity for student input and discussion, making learning much more collaborative,” Woodrow said.

ECU’s fully-accredited clinical health psychology program allows students to be a part of an emerging field that prepares them to work as clinicians. They are trained to foresee technological advances in medicine and strategize how best to apply them to psychological treatment.

Creating ties

Sears’ work creates ties between the Brody School of Medicine and the East Carolina Heart Institute and the main campus, where his ECU memorabilia-covered office is located. His work makes connections between medicine and social sciences that have key implications for patient treatment and outlook.

“ECU has strengths in both campuses,” Sears said. “Programs like ours tend to capitalize on that. Health psychology integrates biological and psychosocial variables and components that represent a truly state-of-the-art approach to human health.”

Sears’ work involves disciplines frequently thought to be unrelated, ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard said.

“Psychology and cardiology are not readily related in the public’s mind,” Ballard said, “yet by connecting them, Sears’ work has improved lives and added to the body of knowledge about both disciplines.”

Sears said the O. Max Gardner Award highlights not only how professionals at the very highest levels of their fields can work together for the greater good, but also how North Carolina’s investments — like the East Carolina Heart Institute — are making sizeable returns to the state’s citizens.

Roddy Jones, ECU alumnus and former member of both ECU’s Board of Trustees and the UNC Board of Governors, agreed.

Although not a patient of Sears, Jones lives with an ICD and therefore appreciates Sears’ efforts on a deeper level. During normal check-ups, he has asked technicians and cardiologists if they have heard of Sears. The answer is always yes, Jones said.

“He has a unique ability to see through and grasp things that are problems for most people,” Jones said, “but for him it’s an opportunity for a solution.”

The O. Max Gardner Award was created through the will of Oliver Max Gardner, the late senator, lieutenant governor and governor of North Carolina. It is the only award for which all faculty members at all 16 university-system institutions are eligible.

Sears is the eighth ECU professor to earn the O. Max Gardner and only the second psychologist to win since the award’s creation in 1949.

via The Daily Reflector.


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