Dr. Lauren Riley, who speaks both English and American Sign Language, is an expert diagnostician who arrives at Seattle’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital from University of California San Francisco (UCSF) to help crack the team’s most difficult cases. She is played by deaf Jewish actress Shoshannah Stern, who always dreamed of being on the show.
Stern, 39, comes to the medical drama after roles in such shows as “Threat Matrix,” “Weeds,” “Jericho,” and “Supernatural.” She co-wrote and co-starred in the Sundance Now original dramedy series “This Close” about two deaf friends trying to make their way in Los Angeles, which recently ran for two seasons.
Stern’s first appearance on “Grey’s Anatomy” was in an episode that aired on February 13. She told The Times of Israel in an email interview that she thought the addition of Dr. Riley to the show could have wide ranging positive consequences.
“Someone educated me that while the number of women in STEM is already low, the number of deaf women is atrocious. 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,” she said.
Stern has already heard from deaf doctors and other deaf individuals in the medial field about the encouraging impact of seeing her on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“One mentioned that they dropped out of medical school because stuff like face masks prevented them from being able to read lips,” she said.
Stern herself has had negative interactions with the medical community. She recounted “freaking out” during an emergency cesarean section because she could not understand what the medical staff were saying behind their surgical masks. Consequently, she is not surprised that deaf people will drive hundreds of miles to see a deaf doctor.
She is critical of the medical profession for “pathologizing rather than humanizing” people with disabilities.
“They separate the medical issue from the person and put it in a box rather than looking at the whole person and their issues in order to determine what’s right for that particular person. Too often one standard diagnosis is given and then they’re shocked that it doesn’t work for everyone… Doctors also view [people with disabilities] differently and think they are less likely to understand what’s wrong with them and are therefore incapable of self-advocacy,” Stern said.
Stern worked with the “Grey’s Anatomy” production team in deciding how Dr. Riley would communicate. Initially, the thought would be that Stern would read lips and speak aloud exclusively, since that is the means of communication of deaf physicians consulted by the show’s producers. However, Stern felt it would be better for her to do a combination of speaking and signing, since that is what she does in her own life.
“I usually play characters who are more English dominant, meaning they mainly speak and lip-read, but that’s actually not my reality. Signing is my native language. It’s actually always a very vulnerable experience for me to speak on television because I’m always extra conscious that I’m using a language that’s not natural for me, and so it probably doesn’t sound natural to the audience either. I do it anyway, because I am a deaf person and this is what a deaf voice sounds like, and so I hope there’s value in that exposure,” she said.
It was decided that Dr. Riley would use sign language when communicating with patients and colleagues about cases, but English when interacting with colleagues about non-medical subjects. This would also allow the show to include technology used by deaf doctors who sign to communicate with hearing patients. For example, Dr. Riley shows up in one scene with her tablet and props it up on a table at the foot of the patient’s bed. We see her signing in front of it, while her interpreter back at UCSF does a simultaneous translation that the patient can hear.
Stern relied on help from her cousin, a nurse who is deaf, to learn medical signs. ASL does not include many medical and science-based signs, because there has not been a high demand for them as of yet.
“That’s a huge detriment in deaf people’s access to science and medicine, but we have people working on that now. The only cool thing about that is that I had to do research to make sure I understood what everything Riley is saying actually meant. Sign language is context based, so signs vary depending on the meaning. So you can’t use same sign for a window in the wall if you’re talking about a pericardial window, for instance. So I learned so much by doing this,” Stern said.
“I want to thank all the deaf people in the field who are tirelessly working to create more medical signs. It’s an entirely different language that can be used within the medical field. 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,” she added.
Stern is fourth generation in a multigenerational deaf family. She knows the gene for deafness that runs in her family is also prevalent in the wider deaf community.
“It may have some roots in the Ashkenazi Jewish community as well, but I’m honestly not that interested in the origins,” she said.
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Stern has a young daughter named Mayim, but declined to say whether she too is deaf. When Stern was pregnant, she was given the opportunity to test for the possibility of her baby being born deaf, but she refused.
“I knew there was a possibility, and that was enough for me to prepare, because I know I am deaf and that’s enough for me,” Stern said.
The actress said she is glad that there is more awareness about inclusion and accessibility today than when she was young. Growing up in Fremont, California, outside San Francisco, her family was for a long time the only Jewish deaf family in town. They were able to attend services at a local synagogue with an interpreter. But Stern and her siblings opted for playing soccer over becoming b’nei mitzvah because the necessary educational support was not available at their Sunday school.
Both of Stern’s grandmothers were Holocaust survivors. She said that this has had a huge influence on her life, particularly with regard to her empathy toward refugees. She also credits her grandmothers’ example for giving her the courage to create a television show (“This Close”) that employed hundreds of people.
“I would not be here or have the life that I have today if my grandmothers hadn’t left their homeland and gave up everything they had to build a better future for their kids. They sacrificed so much that they had for future generations, and I think that’s a lesson that we should always think about… You can’t just give up and feel sorry for yourself, because they didn’t,” Stern said.
“They were both deaf Jewish women and they persevered. Maybe you won’t achieve everything you want to in your life, but what you do now has the power to impact those who come after you,” she said.
Stern’s grandmothers’ deafness didn’t define them, just as her deafness doesn’t define her. She wanted to make sure that — despite the trailblazing role — it also wasn’t something that defined Dr. Riley.
“It just adds a unique layer to her,” Stern said.