When Christina departed Grey's Anatomy in Season 10, she warned her best friend Meredith (before dancing it out, of course) not to "get on any little tiny planes that can crash, or stick your hand in a body cavity that has a bomb in it, or offer your life to a gunman. Don't do that. Don't be a hero." It was a playful nod to Meredith's propensity for getting into near-death situations, almost always because she was going out of her way to help someone else. But even Christina couldn't have predicted that a few years after leaving Grey Sloan Memorial, the mere act of Meredith walking into her workplace would put her directly in harm’s way. Meredith contracted COVID-19 at the start of Season 17, and she is not doing well, drifting in and out of a dream state where she's seeing dead people — Derek and George — and even some living friends, too.
This isn't the first time Meredith has been in danger, of course, and it's not even the first time she has communicated with dead people in a liminal, subconscious space. Remember her drowning? As viewers nervously await her outcome on Season 17, you can brush up on your beach theories to see what Meredith's fate might be and catch up on all the miraculous recoveries she’s made thus far:
The Explosive Surgery
Season 2's "It's the End of the World" and "As We Know It" episodes marked a few big firsts for Grey's. It was the show's first real two-parter, its first substantial in-hospital disaster, and Meredith's first brush with death. (It also taught us that Meredith was very much OK with risking her life, a habit she doesn't readily shake off.) In this episode, Meredith reached her hand into an unconscious man's chest to prevent him from bleeding out. But here’s the thing: The patient, a WWII re-enactor, had an unexploded bazooka shell in there, so any slight movement or bad luck could kill her.
The procedure to remove the weapon was successful, and Meredith lived. The bomb squad worker, Dylan Young (a pre-Friday Night Lights Kyle Chandler), ultimately died on his way out with the explosive, just after telling Meredith, "You did good." This death stuck with her, as the series showed in a later near-death experience, but it also resonates with Meredith's current arc as Dylan and Meredith find themselves in life-or-death situations while performing their jobs.
As a whole, this was a pretty close brush with death, but Mer did seem like she'd be OK if she followed Dylan's guidance and maintained a steady hand. Plus, on a purely practical level, Ellen Pompeo was still on the early side of a six-year contract — so her plot armor was very much intact.
The Elliot Bay Incident
By the time of Meredith's next near-fatal experience, she was in a low place — her mother with Alzheimer's had recently used a brief moment of clarity to tell her how disappointingly ordinary she was. And when Meredith fell into the freezing water of Elliot Bay while helping victims of the ferry accident in Season 3's "Walk on Water," she didn't fight too hard to resurface. As she told Jo much later in the series, "I thought, 'Why fight? Why not just stop?' ... I stopped. The only reason I'm here is because the people who loved me didn't give up on me."
In the episodes that followed, Derek, Bailey, Richard, and co. worked against all odds to bring back a very cold and long-unconscious Meredith. Meanwhile, she was hanging out in a shadowy hospital purgatory of sorts with Denny, Dylan Young, and other dead patients. She meets her mom, Ellis, there, too. Because she was unconscious, Meredith didn’t know Ellis had just died from a heart attack. Understandably, Meredith was confused, but seeing her mom gave her the extra push to “just keep going.” Walking back her previous hurtful statement, Ellis added, “You are anything but ordinary, Meredith.”
At the time, this was the closest Meredith had actually been to dying. In fact, she kind of did die, depending on which surgeon you ask.
The Hospital Shooter
In some of the most harrowing Grey's episodes ever, murderous widower Gary Clark goes on a shooting rampage at the hospital he blames for his wife's death. On the receiving end of much of Clark’s rage is Derek himself. He ultimately shoots Derek and kills 11 people, including Charles and Reed. He also points a gun at Christina as she performs emergency surgery to save Derek’s life. Here’s where Meredith comes in: Because she can't handle the thought of her best friend and husband dying at the same time, she offers herself to the shooter instead. But a quick-thinking Christina and Jackson save the day and convince Gary not to shoot Meredith because she’s pregnant. Even in the middle of a murder spree, Gary somehow sympathizes with that. Unfortunately, though, Meredith ultimately loses her pregnancy as a result of the stressful, horrifying day.
The Plane Crash
During the Season 8 finale, a trip to Idaho for a particular surgery ends in multiple tragedies when the doctors' private plane crashes in the woods. Fortunately for Meredith this time around, she is among the least physically injured. But her emotional wounds are far more grave, as her sister Lexie was killed in the wreckage, and Mark followed suit upon returning home. Meanwhile, Derek’s hand was crushed, and Arizona had to have her leg amputated upon returning to Seattle Grace.
True to its name, this Season 9 finale is a “perfect” storm of drama. Arizona cheats on Callie, April realizes she loves Jackson, and Meredith delivers her and Derek’s baby via routine C-section only to (almost) bleed out after the surgery due to a spleen injury from a fall earlier in the day. Oh yeah, and the power’s out, so Bailey has to stop the bleeding in the dark. Fortunately, she’s successful despite the extreme conditions, and her lifesaving work inspires Meredith and Derek to name the baby Bailey in her honor.
The Patient’s Attack
After Derek’s heartbreaking death, it was about two years in the Grey’s Anatomy universe before Meredith experienced another major traumatic incident — a physical attack from a patient in a post-seizure state of aggression. This powerful Season 12 episode, "The Sound of Silence," was directed by Denzel Washington and detailed Meredith's long recovery, during which she experienced hearing loss and many other injuries.
Her journey this time around was less about will she make it and more about how. How will she heal physically and emotionally as she works to remain close with her children and forgive the man who hurt her? She does, though, offering her hand to the man in a display of resilience when he visits her in the hospital several weeks later.
Season 17 of Grey's Anatomy addresses COVID-19 head-on, from its depiction of the PPE shortage to the disproportionate rates at which the illness is killing Black Americans. Most notably, Meredith herself tested positive. Despite a temporary, promising upturn, she is on a ventilator (and back in her beach dream) as of the December mid-season finale.
That COVID-19 is such a real, familiar threat to viewers makes Meredith's current condition seem especially grave. Plus, Pompeo and the show's producers have been vocal about the fact that this could be the show's final season. Unlike earlier tragic arcs, which tricked us into thinking that Meredith’s first brushes with death would be fatal, this could legitimately be her final stretch of episodes.