When “Grey’s Anatomy” introduces Dr. Lauren Riley in its Feb. 13 episode, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” it marks more than just Shoshannah Stern’s debut on the long-running drama: Dr. Riley is also the first recurring deaf doctor on a primetime network series.
To tackle the groundbreaking character, Stern teamed up with “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunner Krista Vernoff, who initially didn’t realize this would be a historic first.
“I didn’t know until we were on set shooting it,” Vernoff tells Variety, calling the vibe on set “electric.” “And that is the power of Shoshannah: I fell in love with her as a human, as a communicator, as an actress. I thought she was incredible and I wanted to put her on my show. I did not even know it had never been done before. That’s wild to me. And so to learn that on the day that she was working that this was the first deaf doctor who’s ever appeared on network television? How is that possible?”
Stern met Vernoff on a 2019 Television Academy Foundation panel about representing disabilities in storytelling. “We just got to talking backstage, and she was talking about the lack of work, even though she’s put her own incredible show on the air,” Vernoff recalls. “And I was so smitten with her.”
Vernoff suggested on the spot that Stern come play a doctor on “Grey’s Anatomy.” “I don’t know if I’ve ever invented a character because I fell in love with an actor,” Vernoff admits.
The guest spot is also a literal dream come true for Stern, who had a recurring dream about being on the medical series a decade ago. “It was always just me walking around in scrubs with the other doctors like I was one of them,” Stern recalls. “I remember always having trouble adjusting when I woke up from these dreams, because they always felt so vividly real.”
The first day on set felt almost dreamlike because she “felt super calm, like you do when you’re dreaming,” she explains. “Everyone was unbelievably welcoming and nice to the point that I kind of felt like I’d been there before. Members of the cast who I didn’t even have scenes with still went out of their way to come and say hello to me.”
Prior to meeting Vernoff, the path to joining the show was bumpy, as Stern was let go by a manager a decade ago when they couldn’t understand why she declined to audition to play a patient on the hit drama. “It made no logical sense for me to turn down something real for something that wasn’t,” she says. “But something inside me was telling me not to.”
Now, with Vernoff on her side, Stern was invited to the writers’ room to discuss coming on to the series, and the actress came prepped with her own research on deaf doctors.
“I’ve always been fascinated with all the deaf doctors out there in the wild,” Stern says. “They’re all very different, but a commonality they share is that they seem to bring a special touch to their job. Some have actually invented medical technology to allow them more access, some of which you’re going to see in Riley’s episodes.”
When Stern told the writers that deaf doctors traditionally make better diagnosticians than the average hearing doctor, the final pieces clicked into place. The writers then crafted a longer-term patient (Sarah Rafferty’s Suzanne), whose mysterious case would prompt DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) to call in outside assistance.
Although Stern’s characters in the past have been primarily English-dominant (using a combination of lip-reading and Stern speaking) — and many deaf doctors also utilize that way of communicating — the collaboration with the writers led to taking Dr. Riley in a different direction.
“For Riley, I really wanted her to sign,” Stern says. “She deals with people’s bodies, and you use your entire body to sign, so I just thought it would carry a special kind of weight. My deaf cousin [who is also named Lauren] is a nurse that uses an interpreter at work, and my husband does a lot of video relay interpreting in the medical field, so the inspiration for me for how Riley would communicate was cross-bred between my cousin and my husband.”
Working with Vernoff, episode writer Tameson Duffy, and director Jesse Williams, the quartet utilized technology to allow for Riley’s interpreter to communicate via an iPad, which was used in scenes with multiple characters. However, when she was one-on-one with someone (and when there were mobility concerns about being tied to the video screen), Riley would switch to lip-reading and English with her new colleagues.
“The team at ‘Grey’s’ also reached out to some deaf doctors on their own to ensure what they were writing about was accurate,” Stern says. “It was just an absolute spectacular example of the magic that collaboration can bring, and I’m so grateful to Krista and everyone at ‘Grey’s’ for their commitment to that.”
In portraying this trailblazing character, “it was most important to me that Riley was the best at what she did because, not in spite, of the fact that she’s deaf,” Stern says. “It was also important that being deaf isn’t something that defines Riley, it just adds a unique layer to her. I loved how it was executed on the page, too, because Riley does eventually kind of touch on how her being deaf has actually helped her be as good as she is, but she’s kind of an enigma in that you never really know what she’s thinking or why she’s saying what she is.”
Off-screen, “the response has just been so profound,” even before the episodes officially air, Stern admits. “I’ve gotten tweets from other deaf doctors and deaf people in the medical field. One mentioned that they dropped out of medical school because stuff like face masks prevented them from being able to read lips. I remember freaking out on the table in the OR when I had an emergency C-section because I understood nothing anyone was saying because of these face masks too. I think that’s why some people will drive hundreds of miles to where there is a deaf doctor so they can be understood.”
Stern also relied on her cousin Lauren to help her with the medical signs on the show. “There aren’t even existing signs for a lot of the medical stuff, or really science based signs in general, because the incidence of it being used is so low,” she says. “That’s a huge detriment in deaf people’ access to science and medicine, but we have people working on that now. It’s such an incredible feat and hopefully the more it’s utilized, the more it will spread and become normalized because that will provide more access and understanding for deaf patients when they go to the doctor. I hope that people will see Riley and realize that it can be a reality for them, too. So hopefully ‘Grey’s’ can also change lives in that particular sense.”
“Grey’s Anatomy” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.