'Grey's Anatomy' Brings Back an Original Star as the ABC Drama Dives Deep Into the Pandemic

[This story contains spoilers from Thursday's season 17 premiere of ABC's Grey's Anatomy.]

Dr. Meredith Grey may have COVID-19.

Thursday's season 17 premiere of ABC's Grey's Anatomy ended with leading lady Ellen Pompeo's doctor passed out in the hospital parking lot before seeing a vision of her late husband, Derek, as original star Patrick Dempsey returned to reprise his role in a surprising fashion.

"The most important task we had this season was to honor the reality of this global pandemic and the impact it’s having — particularly on health care workers," showrunner Krista Vernoff said in a statement after Thursday's episode aired on the East Coast. "Along with that we had to come up with creative ways to allow our show to still be fun and romantic and provide some escapism. Enter Patrick Dempsey. The beach motif — which will continue beyond the premiere — provided a way for us to live outside the pandemic even for a little while here and there. And Derek’s return provided pure joy for us, for Meredith, and for the fans. Season 17 has been a herculean effort by our cast, our crew, our writers, and our partners at Disney and ABC — and we are proud of it. But our effort is nothing compared to the work of our front-line health care workers to whom this season is dedicated. We hope our show inspires you to wear your masks to protect them and each other. As Derek Shepherd would say, 'It’s a beautiful day to save lives.'"

While Vernoff stopped short of confirming if Meredith (Pompeo) has COVID-19, such a diagnosis would make sense given that season 17 of Grey's was dedicated both by the show and by the actress herself to heath care workers.

Dempsey's Derek — Meredith's husband and longtime love interest — was killed off in the season 11 finale. He reappeared in a dream sequence during Thursday's season 17 premiere and will return for next week's episode, titled "My Happy Ending," as well. (Watch the promo, below.)

Vernoff also noted that Dempsey's return was done in secret in a bid to guard against spoilers. "Most of the actors didn’t know. Some of the writers didn’t know. Most of the good folks at the studio and network didn’t know. It’s so fun watching it all unfold," she tweeted.

Grey's Anatomy returned for its 17th season Thursday with a two-hour premiere that heavily featured how the Seattle-based doctors of Grey Sloan hospital navigated the novel coronavirus pandemic. For her part, Meredith was struggling with the physical and emotional toll of the coronavirus as Grey Sloan shifted to becoming a hospital that almost exclusively treated COVID-19 patients.

As for Pompeo, the actress appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live after the episode and revealed that she has been at work at Grey's this week, meaning it's unlikely that she's leaving the hit series. Pompeo's contract is up this year and ABC, per sources, has already been in conversations for a renewal for at least one more season. Creator Shonda Rhimes has repeatedly stressed that Grey's will run as long as Pompeo wants to do the show.

"We all know 2020 has been a long, ugly road. We were so happy to be able to film these scenes and knew how much joy it would bring people," Pompeo told Kimmel.

Dempsey, meanwhile, is not the first original star to make a surprise return to Grey's Anatomy. After being fired from the medical drama, Isaiah Washington returned to reprise his role as Preston Burke in a storyline that was part of fellow original star Sandra Oh's departure.