Inspire: Heather Drake-Bianchi

Thanks to CineMedics CNY founder, the show goes on

By Jason Klaiber

Right around the time that spring turned to summer in 2020 — just after the unions of the entertainment industry put the brakes on moviemaking amidst rising COVID cases — it was the team behind CineMedics CNY that swooped in with an updated health and safety protocol, one that could be used by those on film sets anywhere and everywhere.

“That was kind of where everything started,” said Heather Drake-Bianchi, the Syracuse native who founded the mobile medical service.

Now, a little over a year later, the company is firmly in the routine of performing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for many of the most elaborate and buzzed-about movie productions in the country.

Drake-Bianchi said a key part of her company’s response is the transportation of laboratory equipment directly to sound stages, backlots and other spots where films are being shot. This prevents the admittance of cast and crew members to hospitals or clinics where there would be a greater chance of contact with sick patients.

The service also makes efficiency a priority without the sacrifice of quality, as Drake-Bianchi said she and her team have been able to test upwards of 300 people in a single hour with accurate results.

In her eyes, the success of CineMedics CNY over the last year can be largely attributed to the varied, complementary backgrounds of its personnel — an outcome deliberately pursued during the recruitment stage.

Welcomed into the fold are not only first responders and lab techs equipped with knowledge of bench research and medicine but also special operations military veterans, “logistical gurus” and people well-versed in cinema and the filmmaking landscape.

“Every single person on this team is hand-selected for the skill set that they bring,” Drake-Bianchi said. “I might own the business, but I am nothing without this team and all of their gifts and abilities. If one of them leaves, this integral puzzle piece that makes up the whole is gone, and we feel that gap.”

Heather Drake-Bianchi completed her undergrad at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studied biomedical science. She later earned a master’s degree in anatomy and physiology from New York Chiropractic College and another in molecular DNA analysis from Syracuse University, where she met the lead scientist for CineMedics CNY, Molly May.

On top of the on-site nasopharyngeal testing they provide, CineMedics CNY has sometimes been tasked with imposing compliance with mask mandates and social distancing recommendations on different sets.

Since such guidelines can inhibit both character portrayals in a fictional, COVID-less storyline and the direction of scenes that call for sizable crowds, the company has mostly relied on the use of a bubble with regimented zones.

The ‘A’ zone is a constrained space that relaxes masking rules for the acting talent, though they’re expected to undergo testing five times a week. The remaining ‘B,’ ‘C’ and ‘D’ zones comprise support staff and construction workers in the process of assembling additional film scenery.

There had usually been medics present on film sets pre-COVID, but back in those times, they would mainly be on standby to treat injuries sustained by stunt doubles, which is still a common responsibility, or else they would remain available to provide over-the-counter medication.

As always, austere conditions are dealt with calmly and accordingly, such as when the CineMedics CNY team had to maintain steady power in negative-degree weather last winter while on the set of Don’t Look Up, an upcoming dark comedy starring a bevy of big names, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.

In its first year of operation, CineMedics CNY has gone from being entirely self-funded to having branches established in New York City, Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

“None of us ever thought that it was going to take off to this extent,” Drake-Bianchi said. “We just knew that we were going to make the most efficient, high-end, risk-mitigating logistical laboratory that we could possibly think of.”

She added that money was never the primary focus for this undertaking, claiming that she and her colleagues would not have entered the field of paramedic work had that been the case. Instead, the objective is to give back and stay linked to the local community.

In line with that, CineMedics CNY created a scholarship program at Onondaga Community College that will go into effect this fall for students hoping to become paramedics. Chosen by people from the community college and Upstate University Hospital, the scholarship recipients would be able to follow a full-ride route as long as they maintain at least a 3.2 grade point average from one semester to the next.

As the female founder of a business that has witnessed, in her words, “astronomical growth,” Drake-Bianchi said her advice to young women—and men too—is to remain transparent and full of integrity throughout their careers, even after some wobbly steps and certain failures.

“Having integrity speaks louder than anything else,” she said.

In her years, Heather Drake-Bianchi has worked around the world in the realm of critical care medicine. She has served as a paramedic for such organizations as Ocean Classroom Foundation and Remote Medical International, and she has assisted in search and rescue efforts in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

Going forward, she hopes for CineMedics CNY to incorporate individualized genetic sequencing, a process to be carried out in brick-and-mortar reference labs that would indicate which symptoms and variants are being encountered by patients and thus which medical treatment pathways should be followed on a person-to-person basis.


Originally published September, 2021.