Pembroke, NC — Samuel F. Sears, Jr., Director of Doctoral Programs in Health Psychology at East Carolina University and Director of Cardiac Psychology Services at the East Carolina Heart Institute, was honored with the O. Max Gardner Award today (Friday, April 12) by the Board of Governors of the 17-campus University of North Carolina. Sears is an internationally recognized expert in the study of the psychological outcomes for patients with cardiac disease, particularly those with implantable cardioconverter defibrillators (ICDs). He has devoted his career to improving quality of life for these patients and helping them “return to living.”   He is the world’s leading resource in spreading the message to cardiac patients and physicians of how to cope with ICDs and the everyday risk of cardiac death.

The awards, given annually since 1949, were established by the will of Gov. O. Max Gardner to recognize faculty who have “made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race.” It is the only award for which all faculty members on of the 17 UNC campuses are eligible. Recipients are nominated by their chancellors and selected by the Board of Governors. The 2013 award carries a $20,000 cash prize and was presented by Board of governors Chairman Peter Hans and Gardner Award Committee member Dudley Flood of Raleigh.

Sudden cardiac arrest remains the single leading cause of death for adult men and women in the U.S., claiming some 400,000 Americans each year. ICDs are the gold-standard treatment for patients who survive cardiac arrest or are at risk for potentially life-threatening arrhythmias. Cardiac patients with chronic heart failure or documented ventricular arrhythmias rely on the ICD to identify and terminate these irregular heartbeats using high-energy shocks. Approximately 1 million Americans currently have ICDs. But such life-saving shocks—or the fear of them—can trigger potentially severe anxiety. Patients must tolerate fear of shock to reclaim their quality of life.

Imagine walking around every day with the knowledge that you might, without warning, be jolted with 700 volts of electricity—that you might, without warning, get the equivalent of a mule kick right in the middle of your chest. That is the reality of daily life for thousands of patients with an ICD. “It’s a modern-day paradox of safety and fear,” Sears told East, the ECU university magazine. “You’ve got to learn to cope with this to get the benefit out of this.”

A prolific researcher, Sears is the most published author in the world on ICD patient outcomes and psychological factors. He has participated in numerous research teams with graduate students, nurses, and physicians worldwide and currently serves as principal investigator on a number of national and international studies.  He also has taken the unique step of translating and adapting his research work into publications specifically for ICD patients and their families. Each year he gives more than 50 patient-centered educational lectures around the U.S. and Europe for doctors and nurses and presents workshops for more than 1,000 ICD patients. To help educate the public, he has appeared on the last three seasons of Second Opinion, a medical information show on PBS.

This past year, he founded a spin-off company to produce mobile phone apps and multimedia patient education materials for ICD patients and families. The goal is to help them achieve a desirable quality of life, despite heart disease. “While I don’t save lives,” says Sears, “I save the quality of lives.”

Sears’ fascination with the psychology of health and recovery was inspired by his own experience recuperating from football injuries at the University of Florida, where he was a walk-on wide receiver. He earned an undergraduate degree in psychology in 1990, and went on to earn his master’s and doctorate at the University of Florida, where he remained as a professor for 12 years. He arrived at ECU in 2007 and quickly established himself as a standout teacher, mentor, and researcher. He was named ECU’s Research Mentor of the Year in 2012, an award he earned three times during his career at the University of Florida.