A serious sports fan who briefly was a walk-on wide receiver at the University of Florida, Samuel Sears is fond of gridiron metaphors, often delivered with fist pumps and boosterish catch phrases.
And so the East Carolina University psychology professor likens the patients that have been the focus of his career, many of them heart attack survivors, to a team that has fallen way behind but is grinding its way to victory.
“It’s the ultimate comeback story,” says Sears, who runs a counseling clinic within the university’s East Carolina Heart Institute. “When you make the cardiac comeback, everybody’s rooting for you. It’s exhilarating to help somebody take a hit and keep on going.”
Sears, 44, is a leader in the growing field of health psychology, which seeks to integrate psychology into medical care, taking into account a patient’s well-being as well as his physical health.
He developed a Ph.D. program in the field at ECU, and is widely acknowledged as the world expert in his specialty – cardiology patients who wear implantable defibrillators, or ICDs, that administer a shock of up to 700 volts automatically when a patient’s heart fails to beat regularly.
While the device saves lives, the fear of the shock can be debilitating for some patients, triggering depression or causing them to withdraw from daily activities. Sears’ work has sought to help the million or so Americans who wear the devices overcome that anxiety.
His work recently earned him this year’s O. Max Gardner Award, given annually to the UNC system faculty member who has “made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race” – a lofty accolade that Sears refers to as the “Heisman Trophy of North Carolina Academe.”
In nominating him for the award, his colleagues cited his prolific research agenda, including more than 100 published articles. But most said his direct work with patients sets him apart.
“Dr. Sears is a remarkable human being,” says Kathleen Row, a fellow professor in the psychology department at ECU. “Patients and health care providers respond to his talks and writing because of his genuine nature and humility. He radiates a sense of concern for others.”
Sears has adapted his research for publications aimed at people who wear ICDs and their families, and he lectures widely to patients and medical staff, spreading the word that patients can get back to normal life in speeches peppered with references to television shows such as “Survivor” and “Get Smart.”
He recently helped create a mobile phone app for ICD wearers, allowing patients access to key information in areas where counseling is not available, and he has also offered his expertise on the PBS medical information show “Second Opinion.”
In a way, Sears says, his work is about helping people keep pace emotionally with technologies that are saving more lives than ever before – what he calls a “welcome challenge.”
“We say, ‘Bring it!’” Sears says. “Living is a good thing. My driving force is to couple the saving of life with the saving of quality of life.”
Fascinated with recovery
Sears is tall and bald, with a style of speech that is at once folksy and intellectual. It’s evident how he would be “adept at building a rapport with almost anyone,” as one former student described him in a nomination letter for the Gardner Award.
He is an announcer at sporting events at his sons’ school in Greenville. On a recent stop at a Raleigh coffee shop, on the way to meet with medical staff in Chapel Hill, he engaged in impromptu conversations with two complete strangers: an ECU alumnus and a man living with a heart problem.
Sears grew up in the sprawling suburbs surrounding Orlando, and says his passion for sports dominated his young life. He ran track and played wide receiver at his high school, and walked on to the Gators football team once he got to college.
But when an injury his freshman year derailed his hopes of sports stardom, Sears had to regroup. He found his new passion while undergoing several surgeries to his knee and shoulders.
“I grew up dreaming about going to the University of Florida and playing for the Gators, so I really had to look at what to do next,” he says. “But the injuries helped me understand adversity, and I became fascinated with the process of recovery.”
He got involved with cardiac patients while doing undergraduate research. He pursued graduate study in the field of health psychology, which at the time was offered at only a handful of U.S. universities, and was hired to the faculty after earning his Ph.D.
Defibrillator technology was quickly evolving. Used initially only by medical teams, the newer devices could be used by civilians, and even implanted in patients who were at risk of heart attack.
But Sears saw early on that the shocks used to get the heart beating again – which he compares to being kicked in the chest by a mule – could wreak havoc on the emotional state of the patients.
As a young professor, he partnered with medical researchers on a series of studies on the psychological effects of the treatment and how to remedy them.
“The technology was established as really valuable,” he says, “and it created in its wake the need for psychological support.”
Sears came to ECU in 2007, lured by the chance to establish a new program at a fast-growing and ambitious university. Though still a Gator fan, he quickly fell in love with the Pirate teams.
The health psychology Ph.D. program has produced half a dozen graduates so far, two of whom were hired back as faculty.
Two days a week, Sears sees patients in the university hospital’s cardiac clinic, where his counseling is a routine part of patient care.
And he continues an ambitious program of grant-funded research. Each implantable defibrillator has the equivalent of an airplane’s “black box,” providing Sears with a nonstop steam of data that he can use to link patients’ physical and mental states.
In one study, he found that the number of shocks administered by the devices increased after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, both in New York and in Florida patients.
He likes to use current events in his classes, asking his students to discuss how they might handle a particularly traumatic event.
“I train my students that they have to be leaders, to be the person that when someone says, ‘What do we do?’, they can answer,” he says.
But he says his primary motivation is his patients – driving down the field, evolving from victims to survivors.
“They have the guts and swagger to be out there,” he says. “And I bring a big-time passion to what I do because I’m inspired by their courage.”
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