As the world was first falling for Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, she was secretly fighting for her life — a battle that continued throughout her early years on the show.
In an essay for the New Yorker, the British actress, 32, revealed that she suffered a health crisis after wrapping Season 1 of the megahit HBO series, based on George R. R. Martin’s books. The actress who plays Daenerys Targaryen on the show, going into its eighth and final season, suffered two brain aneurysms.
A workout with a trainer in London on the morning of February 11, 2011 was more intense than usual, Clarke recalled. She suddenly developed a raging headache and felt fatigue but initially fought through it. However, getting into the plank position made her feel “as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain,” so she took a break in the locker room.
There, “I reached the toilet, sank to my knees, and proceeded to be violently, voluminously ill,” she wrote. “Meanwhile, the pain — shooting, stabbing, constricting pain — was getting worse. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged.” Clarke said to help fight off the pain and nausea — and to keep her brain engaged — she focused on, among other things, “lines from Game of Thrones.”
A woman in the next stall realized she needed help — and Clarke was soon raced to the hospital. She recalled the ambulance sirens, someone saying her pulse was weak, throwing up bile and someone using her cell phone to call her parents. At the hospital, doctors scrambled to figure out what was wrong — and an MRI, a scan of the brain, finally gave answers, said Clarke, who had migraines as a teen and had gotten dizzy and passed out more than once but wasn’t worried about it.
“The diagnosis was quick and ominous: a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain,” Clarke wrote. “I’d had an aneurysm, an arterial rupture. As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter. For the patients who do survive, urgent treatment is required to seal off the aneurysm, as there is a very high risk of a second, often fatal bleed. If I was to live and avoid terrible deficits, I would have to have urgent surgery. And, even then, there were no guarantees.”
After being transferred to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, she had brain surgery. “Brain surgery?” she recalled in disbelief. “I was in the middle of my very busy life — I had no time for brain surgery. But, finally, I settled down and signed. And then I was unconscious. For the next three hours, surgeons went about repairing my brain. This would not be my last surgery, and it would not be the worst. I was 24 years old.”
While they didn’t have to open her skull for the surgery to seal off the aneurysm — and it was deemed a “minimally invasive” operation — she recalled the pain after as “unbearable.” One of the post-op conditions she suffered was aphasia, an impairment of language, and she couldn’t remember her name.
“In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug,” Clarke said. “I asked the medical staff to let me die. My job — my entire dream of what my life would be — centered on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost.”
Luckily, the aphasia passed a week later, and one month after being admitted, she was discharged. However, she had learned in the hospital that she had a second, smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain, which could “pop” at any moment. So when she started doing press for GoT just weeks later and returned to the set for Season 2 soon after that, “I was deeply unsure of myself. I was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die.” Though she didn’t let that show at work. “On the set, I didn’t miss a beat.” But “Season 2 would be my worst. I didn’t know what Daenerys was doing. If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die.”
While life resumed — with her secret closely guarded from the press (though her GoT bosses were made aware) — a routine scan in 2013, after finishing Season 3, showed that the other aneurysm had doubled in size and needed to be fixed immediately. She immediately underwent surgery in NYC, where she had been appearing on Broadway, and it was supposed to be a “relatively simple operation,” it wasn’t — the procedure failed.
“I had a massive bleed and the doctors made it plain that my chances of surviving were precarious if they didn’t operate again,” she detailed. “So they did, but “the old-fashioned way — through my skull.” The recovery, another full month in the hospital, was even worse than the first surgery and she said she looked worse for wear — “as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced.” She had a drain coming from her head and “bits of my skull [replaced] by titanium.” She has, but you can’t see, a “scar that curves from my scalp to my ear.”
During that recovery, “I lost all hope” at times, Clarke admitted. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eye.” She had anxiety and panic attacks. “I felt like a shell of myself. So much so that I now have a hard time remembering those dark days in much detail. My mind has blocked them out. But I do remember being convinced that I wasn’t going to live. And, what’s more, I was sure that the news of my illness would get out. And it did — for a fleeting moment. Six weeks after the surgery, the National Enquirer ran a short story. A reporter asked me about it and I denied it.”
Clarke, who has “healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes,” went on to thank her parents, including her dad, who died in 2016, for supporting her throughout and all the medical professionals who helped save her life. “I know that I am hardly unique, hardly alone,” she wrote. “Countless people have suffered far worse, and with nothing like the care I was so lucky to receive.”
She also announced a new charity SameYou, which provides treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.
After Clarke shared her story, her GOT co-star Lena Headey posted a tribute calling her a “warrior.”
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