Ellen Pompeo Reflects on Her 'Grey's Anatomy' Journey: 'How Do You Walk Away From a Hit?'

Plus, a hint at what's to come for Dr. Grey and Dr. Deluca...

With the Grey’s Anatomy midseason premiere around the corner, Ellen Pompeo can’t help but reflect on her journey the last 15 seasons — and what’s in store for Dr. Meredith Grey’s future on the medical drama.

“Obviously I never anticipated the show still being the No. 1 show on the network,” Pompeo, 49, exclusively told PEOPLE. “How do you walk away from a hit? The fans will dictate when the show ends. As much as we think we’re in control, we’re not. It’s the fans’ show at this point. They control how long the show goes. We’ll see. I kind of just take it year by year and see.”

Last week, ABC ordered three more episodes of Grey’s for the 2018-19 season, bringing the total order to 25 — and leaving fans in a frenzy. Could this be the end? Or could there be a major tragedy brewing?

“The extra episodes was not at my request,” showrunner Krista Vernoff told PEOPLE. “It makes me laugh that people think, ‘Oh Krista wanted to add extra episodes so she could kill somebody.'” She continued, “The extra episodes are because the ABC schedule allowed for extra episodes and because our numbers are so strong across all platforms. We just have a lot of stories we want to tell this season.”

Richard Cartwright/ABC via Getty; ABC

Pompeo, who has starred as Dr. Meredith Grey since season 1 of Grey’s Anatomy first premiered in 2005, said her time on the show has “been so significant” to her personal and professional life.

“I think the biggest lesson is what something can be if you give it the chance to turn it around,” she said. “We had so much drama in the early days. The show was so strong and so solid and so amazing, then we had all these behind-the-scenes drama and then it would’ve been really easy to walk away and say, ‘I don’t want to deal with that anymore.’ I guess it’s a weird message, because I guess if you’re in a relationship that’s abusive, that’s something you should walk away from. How long do you stick with something that doesn’t make you feel good?”

Bob D'Amico/ABC

She continued, “But I’ve had the incredible experience to be able to turn this around and be the steerer of the ship and right all of our wrongs and get a do-over and get to change the environment and change the atmosphere. It was a conscious decision from Shonda [Rhimes] and I to continue to do this but do it differently. It’s been an evolution. That’s been the biggest lesson, growing up and getting older and coming into our power and feeling more comfortable with our power and our leadership, changing things that we thought we were powerless to change before, we now have the power to control and change our environment and make it the place we want it to be. It’s very satisfying.”

While fans have seen Dr. Grey fall in and out of love/lust/like with a handful of eligible suitors since the death of her husband Dr. Derek Shepherd, Pompeo said she’s not sure if Meredith will ever find love again.

But in the mid-season finale, Grey and Deluca (Giacomo Gianniotti) — who have been exchanging flirty remarks and looks the past couple episodes — were locked in an elevator after a major storm hit Grey Sloan Memorial.

“Elevators have a lot of meaning on Grey’s Anatomy,” Vernoff said. “For sure we wanted to wink at that history without stepping on it or mirroring it. We looked for new ways to use the elevator in the midseason premiere. We were quite successful. It’s an exciting, sexy, funny, dramatic joy ride of an episode. Fans will not be disappointed.”

But will Meredith find love again?

“No one holds a candle to Derek,” she said. But right now, “I’m guessing she’s finding it now with Dr. Deluca. She’s certainly having her fun.”

“I think he remains to be discovered,” Vernoff said of Meredith’s future love interest. “Will she find love? I think so.”

Grey’s Anatomy returns Thursday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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