Owen, Meredith, and Stephanie already disagreed on their course of treatment when Richard offered to be an extra set of hands. His attempt to humanize their John Doe patient raised the tension and initially seemed like an unnecessary guessing game. Soon, however, we saw how their ability to imagine their patient's life allowed them to get past their own frustrations and back into the role of patient's advocate, while also bringing up a whole bunch of history for each of them.
In answer to Richard's first question, Stephanie picked a name that, in turn, resonated with him and the patient soon became someone he could concretely imagine. He was able to quickly fill in the other details of her life, including what she would say to them about what caused her need for surgery. What followed was an intricate dance for each surgeon as Richard's approach put them through some mental and emotional gymnastics.
The name they picked - Gail - got them to decisions about whether or not she had a pet or kids, a process during which we saw Richard act as if he was remembering her family and their experiences. We were left wondering until the very end of the hour who this imagined patient was to Richard. Likewise, for most of the episode, Meredith continued to lead her own charge while we wondered what had her so on edge about the situation. (I mean, she even pulled rank on Richard in an 'I said so because I'm the Chief of General Surgery' kind of way.) The one thing that felt challenging for me about this compelling experiment was the distracting staging for Richard's imagined patient on a minimally lit stage set off in the distance. The separateness of the staging took me a bit out of the potency of what he was thinking and, possibly remembering, of this patient's life.
When Richard turned his attention to Owen and challenged him to make up a new story for their patient, we saw Owen flash back to operating in the field with Megan, his much wondered about sister who was Nathan's former love and who was presumed lost in a helicopter crash. Owen's imagined sibling-based bickering showed us a tender side of him via this snippet of his relationship with his sister. When she began teasing him about his big beefy hands getting in the way of the speed of his sutures, as Cristina similarly teased him early on in their romance several seasons ago, I about lost it, as I was reminded of my favorite missing in action character via Megan, who may or may not really be missing in action.
We gained further insight into Owen's past, and his current torment, as Megan's imagined teasing shifted to include things she couldn't know about - her ire at his continued friendship with Nathan in light of him having cheated on her, Owen choking Cristina during PTSD-induced night terrors, and his current squabbles with Amelia - until we realized the import of what we were seeing, an Owen more comfortable talking to his sister's ghost than to anyone else in his life about what was going on with him. The teasing got slightly weird when Megan pointed at Meredith and said maybe Owen should have married his friend because at least now he'd have kids.
Of course, it took Megan pushing the teasing envelope for him, and viewers, to realize the depth of Owen's current pain and disconnectedness and that his all out effort to save this particular patient had its roots in his inability to save her and so many other patients during, and since, his military service. The startled moment between Owen and the sister by whom he's haunted was a stark reminder of how much Owen still keeps inside, though we didn't really learn anything more about why he continues to do so.
Meanwhile, Meredith kept arguing with everyone, even as most fans probably already suspected her triggered state would eventually be tied back to Derek's death. But first we got a glimpse into Stephanie's past as a child treated for sickle cell anemia and how invisible it made her feel. The child-sized version of Stephanie kept urging her to speak up for herself, to share the encyclopedic knowledge that could impact their patient's chances. It was powerful to see the vulnerability she felt in response to this pint-sized version of herself bringing her own medical past into the operating room and the strength that infused Stephanie when she realized that same history allowed her to become an even more valuable member of the surgical team.
The story picked up steam as we learned the possibility of the patient's identity, which brought some parts of this story further into focus. Mention of the patient's name and that he had a wife and two children waiting for him brought Meredith back to the night she found out Derek was gravely injured in a car accident. Meredith grew concerned that the family required an update and inside her head she imagined joining her own children in the waiting room to tell them the results of their father's surgery and that he wasn't coming home again. By the end of the hour, we got the already guessed at answer to Richard's story as we learned the patient he was imagining was, of course, his own mother who hated doctors and refused medical treatment until it was too late to save her from pancreatic cancer.
The resolution to the hour's worth of bickering and remembering personal traumas resolved in an unorthodox liver transplant. The moral to the story seemed to be that this patient might have been given up on much earlier in the hour if Richard hadn't used one of his tried and true teaching methods to humanize their patients, which coaxed them into focusing on the long game rather than staying stuck in their immediate assessment of their patient's chances. (And maybe, we've just been shown how he's not out of the teaching game just yet, no matter what that fancy hospital consultant from last week has to say?)
While this hour was a gripping experiment, a whole lot of characters were missing from the action so I'm betting next week we'll get quite the shake up for everybody as we head into the mid-season break.