Imagine walking around with a device implanted in your chest that will deliver
up to 700 volts of electricity if it detects a heart arrhythmia—a life-saving jolt
that feels like being kicked by a mule. Knowing it could go off at any time causes
fear and depression in many patients, and helping ease that pain is Sam Sears’ mission.
By Spaine Stephens
ore than 1 million people worldwide wake up every morning with a tiny defibrillator implanted in their chests to protect them from an abnormal heart rhythm that could cause sudden cardiac arrest. While having the device is often described as like having a paramedic constantly at your side, many patients experience uneasiness, anxiety and depression from worrying it could go off at any second. It’s Dr. Samuel Sears’ mission in life to ease their pain.
The director of ECU’s health psychology program and director of the Cardiac Psychology Service at the East Carolina Heart Institute, Sears is a leading authority on the psychology of living with what are called implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs). Demand for his expertise in this evolving field is booming. He has written or contributed articles to more than 100 scholarly publications addressing the psychological perspective focused on helping patients adapt to life with ICDs. His goal is to find some level of harmony between a life-sustaining machine and the emotional impact it has on patients and their families.
Besides his research, Sears also teaches and advises students, works with patients, conducts research and travels to worldwide speaking engagements. Dividing his time among so many responsibilities is an opportunity that makes him love East Carolina even more. “The people at ECU trust me to do what will do the most good,” he says. “They are supportive of me trying to do a little bit of everything. The balance is fragile, but it really is what I thrive on. The constant change and challenge is the most exciting part.”
Kick like a mule
An ICD can deliver up to 700 volts of electricity when it detects a heart arrhythmia, which Sears says can feel like being kicked by a mule or punched from the inside. Patients have to learn to cope with the possibility of shock on a daily basis. “It’s a modern-day paradox of safety and fear,” he says. “I see more courage on a daily basis than anyone.”
Patients must learn to trust the technology, much like learning to trust a stranger, Sears says. His empathetic interactions with patients and his enthusiasm for research have led him to many media appearances, including a regular stint on PBS’s Second Opinion, a medical information show. He also created ICD Coach, a mobile phone application for ICD patients. Having information at their fingertips is crucial to patients’ ability to cope with the devices because they sustain life. “The mortality rate without the ICD is unacceptable,” Sears says. “Your life is there for the taking; you’ve got to learn to cope with this, to get the benefit out of this.”
Sears was asked to speak on several occasions at a seminar at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “After Dr. Sears spoke an initial time, patients have repeatedly requested that he return to lecture again,” Dr. Hugh Calkins, professor of cardiology at Johns Hopkins, wrote in a letter supporting Sears’ nomination for the 2011 O. Max Gardner Award, which acknowledges a UNC system faculty member who has made far-reaching contributions to mankind.
Students admire him. Kate Cutitta, a doctoral student in Sears’ cardiac psychology lab who is working under his direction on her thesis, says, “I look forward to hopefully having a career similar to Dr. Sears.’ He has the ability to advise students, teach graduate-level courses, do clinical work, all while contributing to research and knowledge of patients living with different cardiac diseases.” Her thesis studies the effects of ICD shock on patients’ daily behaviors.
Dr. Kathleen Row, chair of the Department of Psychology, says Sears leaves lasting impressions on students, teaching them valuable lessons, including, “‘Demand the most from yourself, while being compassionate with others,’” she says. “Given Dr. Sears’ reputation, faculty and students can feel intimidated at first, but once they see how open and supportive and humble he is about his own accomplishments, they feel empowered to follow his example.” Row applauds Sears’ ability to accomplish so much in so many different realms.
“He has a special gift in mentoring students and junior faculty to find their own strengths and ways to apply them to important problems,” she says. “Given ECU’s mission of service to eastern North Carolina, his research and teaching focus really aligns our doctoral program with the university mission. I also think his enthusiasm is a unique quality; while being an outstanding scholar, he has also managed to become such a strong advocate for the health psychology program and for ECU.” “He has given me just the right amount of independence to grow, while also being available for guidance,” says Jessica Ford, a fourth-year student in the health psychology doctoral program. She plans to practice clinical health psychology in either a veteran or active-duty military setting. Sears, she says, models “a leadership style which demonstrates respect and confidence in his students’ abilities.”
In the classroom, all of his attention is focused on providing students a real-world vantage point from which to anticipate their future patients’ needs through health psychology. He incorporates current events and controversies into instruction. “My students need to understand that they’re going to be leaders in the world,” he says, “and they need to understand a lot of things that are going on.” Because health care topics and practices are constantly shifting, Sears’ teaching material shifts as well to incorporate the latest findings in the field. “I think it’s fun,” he says. “I don’t think there’s any way for my lecture notes to become yellowed.” While he was studying at the University of Florida, there was a series of murders in Gainesville, and Sears didn’t understand why none of his professors incorporated what was happening locally into their curricula. He makes a point now to do so. “The world is really our classroom in terms of these issues,” he says.
The emotional impact of injury
Some of his lessons come from personal experience. From childhood, Sears longed to play football for the University of Florida. Approaching that goal like he tackles research and lab work, he walked on the team as a wide receiver and played some before knee and shoulder injuries sidelined him by his junior year. The emotional impact of the physical injuries sparked something in his brain, and he began to study how people coped psychologically with injuries as they worked toward recovery. Psychology research challenged Sears like no other topic had, and it turned into a career. Sears completed his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate at the University of Florida. He left Gainesville to join the ECU faculty in 2007.
His own experiences have lent themselves to his students, who can see their own futures in his success. He also brings to the table an unyielding confidence in East Carolina. His Rawl office looks like the ultimate ECU lair, draped in a life-size Pirate area rug and memorabilia hanging jauntily from the walls. The décor makes a statement, quelling any belief that Sears could want to be anywhere else. Sears holds an unparalleled regard for East Carolina, one he hopes will spread beyond the region. “I want the citizens of North Carolina to see East Carolina the way I see it,” he says, “a place with tremendous strength, potential and benefits to the state. I want ECU to receive the honor it’s due.” Sears believes ECU has given him opportunities that other universities can’t match. “Coming to East Carolina has been a creativity bonanza,” he says. “It’s allowed me to develop and grow my skill sets in a supportive and appreciative environment that I simply cannot imagine anywhere else.” That devotion to the university is infectious to students. “He brings a certain Pirate swagger to the Psychology Department that students are receptive to,” Cutitta says.“I hope to carry on and incorporate his enthusiasm in my future career. I think Dr. Sears’ teaching and practicing at ECU says that this school is just as competitive and advanced in research and medicine as any school in North Carolina.”
That pride and energy currently are pushing for ECU’s Ph.D. program in health psychology to become fully accredited by the American Psychological Association (and eventually the best in the state) and pushing students to see how far they can go in their careers while also balancing time between family, hobbies and a love of life.
“That kind of energy has been a demonstration to me of how hard work and enjoyment can coexist during one’s career,” says Dr. Garrett Hazelton, a postdoctoral fellow in integrative medicine at Duke University. Hazelton studied clinical health psychology under Sears. “Dr. Sears has a knack for making a Tuesday feel like a Friday. You look up and the day is gone and you feel like you have done something worthwhile.” Students trust him to prepare them for the field, to achieve something meaningful. “The better we understand human motivation and behavior, the better we will be at preventing the physical, emotional and financial pain that accompanies diseases,” says Hazelton.
Patients and medical experts trust him to provide the latest and best information about ICDs. Even with so many eyes at ECU, across the state and around the world trained on him and his work, Sears is humbled by the patients he affects every day. To him, his impact is stark and straightforward. “I like my work to be practical and useful,” he says. “The only reason my work matters is that the ICD saves lives.”
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