Sears receives North Carolina’s highest faculty award

PEMBROKE, N.C.   (Apr. 12, 2013)   —   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. 

Dr. Sam Sears accepts the 2013 O. Max Gardner Award from Peter D. Hans, chair of the UNC Board of Governors, during an April 12 announcement at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Photos by Jay Clark

The honor 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 UNC-Pembroke.

After a video on Sears and his work at ECU was shown to the board, UNC Board of Governors Chair Peter Hans called Sears to the podium saying, “You richly deserve this award.”

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 of this award allows me to magnify the challenges of the future. Universities like ours have to respond.”

Sears, a professor of psychology and cardiovascular sciences, earned the award as the world’s leading expert on the psychological implications for patients living with life-saving heart devices.

The implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or 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 ECU. The next, he could be jetting to Europe to address patients with recently placed ICDs. His ultimate 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 1 million Americans live with ICDs. Many live in fear of shock and change their habits and lifestyles to avoid it.

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.

“I hear from patients frequently that the coping strategies I present are all new news,” Sears said.

Practitioners from across the globe supported his nomination for the O. Max Gardner Award, mirroring the impact of his work on individuals’ lives – locally and around the world. 

“Dr. Sears is truly deserving of this statewide recognition,” said Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood Jr., ECU senior associate vice chancellor for health sciences, professor of cardiovascular sciences and director of the ECHI. “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 pioneering work in minimally invasive cardiothoracic surgery. 

Shaping new health psychologists  

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

When he stands in front of a group of students — whether as a guest speaker to an undergraduate engineering class or mentor to a handful of doctoral students — he captures their attention with wit, intensity and sheer presence. Audiences are typically interested in learning about the latest life-saving heart devices and how they affect the mind and body.

The subject matter can become complex, but Sears knows how to draw upon personal experience to draw audiences in and relate to patients.

When he was a student and walk-on football player at 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 as the world changes, just as health care topics and practices constantly shift.

“I don’t think there’s any way for my lecture notes to become yellowed,” he said.

His students appreciate Sears’ realistic approach to practical situations they will be dealing with as professionals and leaders.

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

Cutitta, who plans to pursue a career working with young adults with congenital heart defects, 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 that cannot be reckoned with,” she said. “ECU has an obligation to make a name for itself, and Dr. Sears is paving the way.”

Doctoral student Kevin Woodrow said the passion and sense of inclusion Sears uses in his teaching 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.

ECU also is capitalizing on the fact that psychology is steadily becoming considered part of the core science, technology, engineering and mathematics discipline, said Dr. Susan McCammon, professor and interim chair of the Department of Psychology.

“This is important because psychologists not only contribute directly to scientific innovations,” she said, “but they also help other scientists understand how human behavior and emotions influence the application and acceptance of technology.”

Connecting technology and humanity

On campus, Sears meets with students in his ECU memorabilia-covered office in the Rawl Building. Later the same day, he greets patients and stops for a scholarly discussion with colleagues at the ECHI.

He works to create ties between the Brody School of Medicine and the heart institute and the main campus. 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 produces outcomes using disciplines frequently thought to be unrelated, said Ballard, the ECU chancellor.

  “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 believes 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 — such as the heart institute — are making sizeable returns to the state’s citizens.

“The East Carolina Heart Institute is fulfilling its mission of serving North Carolinians,” he said, “with both state-of-the-art research and clinical care.”

Roddy Jones, an ECU alumnus and former member of the ECU board of trustees and the UNC Board of Governors, has long been a supporter of Sears’ work as well as the opportunity for major breakthroughs it brings to the university and the medical school. “This is a special grail that East Carolina can be proud of,” Jones said, “that one of its own is being recognized by the system and beyond the system.”

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’ve heard of Sears. The answer is always the same: “He is the utmost spokesperson for the device in the world” regarding the ICDs the professionals work with every day.

Jones is not surprised when he hears that answer. “He has a unique ability to see through and grasp things that are problems for most people,” he 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. The 2013 award carries a $20,000 cash prize. It is the only award for which all faculty members at all 16 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. Most recently, he joins Chitwood, who received it in 2004 for his work in cardiovascular surgery, and Dr. Walter J. Pories, who was named the winner for biochemistry in 2001.

Other past ECU professors awarded the O. Max Gardner Award are William E. Laupus, 1989, medicine; Edgar Loessin, 1986, theater; Stanley R. Riggs, 1983, geology; Francis Speight, 1975, art; and Ovid Williams Pierce, 1973, literature.