Grey’s Anatomy is making history once again. In Thursday’s episode, Shoshannah Stern will guest star on the ABC drama as Dr. Riley — the first deaf doctor featured on primetime television. Riley is a diagnostician who comes to Grey Sloan to help DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) try to figure out what’s wrong with Suzanne (Sarah Rafferty), but friction occurs when not everyone on Suzanne’s case agrees with Riley’s methods.
TV Guide interviewed Stern via email about joining Grey’s and how Dr. Riley is going to shake things up at Grey Sloan. The actress, whose credits also include Supernatural, Weeds, and her own show, This Close, also revealed exactly how she ended up on the show — bless cold medicine — and what she hopes viewers get out of seeing her groundbreaking character on ABC’s No. 1 rated drama.
What brought you to this role and the world of Grey’s Anatomy? Were you a fan of the show beforehand?
Shoshannah Stern: DayQuil brought me to the show. I’m serious. I was getting ready to do a panel at the Television Academy with [Grey’s showrunner] Krista Vernoff and suddenly broke out in a severe fever. My makeup artist was like, “Shoshannah, you are sweating profusely. You gotta take something.” And I was like, “Oh, god.” Because every time I take cold medication of any kind I become delirious. Then the next morning I woke up and realized in my DayQuil-induced haze I had pitched the idea of a deaf doctor on Grey’s to her. I used to have dreams that I was a doctor on the show, so it wasn’t out of left field, but it was also definitely something I would not have the guts to do if I wasn’t juiced on cold medication. I guess I need to take DayQuil more often — but also probably not because that’s not a great idea.
We’ve seen other shows like Switched at Birth tackle how difficult and traumatizing it can be for deaf patients to go to a hearing hospital, but it’s rare to see the reverse. What was it like to play a deaf doctor in the power position and actually being able to help people?
Stern: We explored that in the first episode of the second season of This Close too! I actually called it our Grey’s Anatomy episode while we were shooting it because I love the show that much…It was really super refreshing to be able to play someone on the other side of things. I think I may have enjoyed being in that power position a little too much because Jesse [Williams, who directed Dr. Riley’s first episode] pulled me aside and was like, “Maybe make her more confident” and less arrogant. But I mean, I’ve been literally pushed by people who didn’t realize I couldn’t hear them, condescended to, and patted on the head like I’m a cute puppy. It was awesome to be able to return the favor a bit in that moment, so I was feeling it.
Often when we see deaf characters on TV, the focus can be on how their lack of hearing puts them at a disadvantage. Does being deaf actually help Dr. Riley as a diagnostician in any way? How so?
Stern: Oh, definitely. A big problem with the medical industry, as I personally see it, is that they separate the medical issue from the person, rather than looking at the whole person. In the research I did for the character, I found that deaf doctors are more likely to humanize their patients because they’ve grown up with people looking at them like they were pathological problems. Patients also felt deaf doctors were actually better at communicating because doctors often come in the room looking at files and checking machines, so they never really look their patients in the eye. So much is missed because they’re only listening with their ears.
Deaf doctors don’t do that. They look their patients in the eye and listen with their whole bodies. They also know how to ask the same question several different ways because that’s how a deaf brain works, you’re always translating back and forth between written or spoken English and American Sign Language. They also encourage patients to advocate for themselves and make conscious choices with their care plan rather than having one standard diagnosis for each and every person.
Shoshannah Stern, Grey’s Anatomy
Dr. Riley isn’t coming into just any hospital — there’s a lot of egos at Grey Sloan. What is her relationship going to be like with DeLuca and Meredith as she comes in to consult on this case?
Stern: While all of them certainly have very healthy egos, I think they have different sorts. DeLuca’s comes from his need to prove himself because he’s tired of [being] seen as less than. Meredith’s, well, I mean, she’s Meredith Grey, so she’s entitled! Riley’s is a different one than we might have seen before because I think it comes from her constantly being underestimated. So, she has much less of an investment in what other people think or say about her. But I think what both DeLuca and Meredith don’t realize is just how keenly she observes things. It’s going to be revealed just how much she actually picks up on, and she’s not going to be afraid to pull what she knows out of her bag of tricks. That’s going to lead to a dramatic, even volatile shift in the dynamic between the three [of] them as it currently exists. I think the audience might not see it coming. I certainly didn’t!
What are you hoping to show viewers who see this episode and might be ignorant that there are deaf doctors working and thriving in the medical field?
Stern: On a basic level, just that they exist. They are out there, and they are real, and they bring very special skill sets to the table. I think on a deeper level people don’t know what they don’t know, until they know. It really isn’t as complicated as people think it is. One thing that a lot of deaf doctors said was the more they explained things, like that they were deaf and how they would communicate, the more confusing it was for the patients. So a lot of them learned to show rather than tell. Once people saw how they did things, it didn’t seem complicated anymore. Trying to educate people about who you are and what you need is sometimes the most exhausting part about being deaf, so I’d love to think that Dr. Riley could help with that on some level.
Stern begins her arc on Grey’s Anatomy Thursday, Feb. 13 at 9/8c on ABC.