Dunlap woman leads helicopter medical corps

Divina Baratta

Theresa Finerty probably never imagined that she would oversee an aviation crew. That’s not what the stars typically have aligned for medical professionals.

But this former director of emergency/trauma and patient care services at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center understands the value of time and safety — both of which are keys to successful crisis response.

Last year, Finerty’s track record of efficiency and leadership helped land her a position as interim executive director of OSF Aviation, an emergency helicopter transport service. In July, she was promoted to executive director of OSF Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS), which means she now leads all three of OSF’s helicopter services.

These include OSF Life Flight in Peoria; OSF Lifeline (aeromedical only) in Rockford; and OSF Aviation, LLC in Peoria. The unit makes for the busiest aeromedical operation in Illinois, responsible for 2,200 patient transfers each year.

“This is another side of the business for me,” said Finerty, who received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Bradley University and master’s in medical-surgical nursing from the University of Illinois at Peoria.

“I’d say my focus is still on the Sisters’ mission within the medical group, though. We are committed to safety and service and this is such an amazing facet of that. It’s a great learning experience. Each day is a new adventure!”

OSF’s message of a “higher level of care” now comes into more literal play for Finerty. Based out of the aeromedical operations facility near Greater Peoria Regional Airport, she oversees a fleet of four model Bell 230 aircraft. Two of the helicopters are used in Peoria, one in Rockford, and one is kept as a spare.

Finerty works with HEMS pilots, dispatchers, mechanics, paramedics and critical care registered nurses to improve efficiency, collaboration and communication.

Together, the teams reach about 35 counties surrounding Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria and a 12-county area near Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford.

“There’s ongoing training for everyone,” she said, “whether it be about new safety equipment or transport and medical procedures.”

This training exceeds 100 hours of continuing education per crew member per year, which gives HEMS a proactive edge to operate safely and effectively on all its rescue missions.  Over the last 25 years, the operation has maintained a perfect safety record. Finerty attributes this also to the fact that they adhere to strict weather, maintenance and other Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

Each aircraft accommodates one pilot and two other crew members, in addition to the patient. The extra crew is usually comprised of two registered nurses or a registered nurse and a paramedic.

HEMS boasts an average response time of eight minutes from a dispatch request to becoming airborne. And requests come not only from the scene of an accident, but also from doctors who need to quickly transfer patients to a specialist at another medical facility.

Based on the call, the flight crew quickly assembles to prepare for neonatal, pediatric or adult patients. The helicopters are configured to address a multitude of emergency needs and can be outfitted with different equipment including an incubator-like device to regulate temperature for infant passengers.

“It’s really a huge group effort to make this happen,” she said. “So many people touch the process from the initial call to dispatch to the rescue and continued care at the hospital. I’m really honored to be a part of it.”

Finerty, a resident of Dunlap, has held other clinical and management positions with OSF since 1989. She also holds a national certification as a nurse executive.