Emilia Clarke is most famously known for her role as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. Now the actress revealed in a personal essay for the New Yorker that she suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms while filming.
To relieve the stress of being thrust into the limelight Clarke started to workout. She wrote that on the morning of February 11, 2011, she was working out with her personal trainer.
“I was getting dressed in the locker room…when I started to feel a bad headache coming on,” Clarke ignored it and pushed through her workout. She had to stop while doing a plank and go to the bathroom to throw up.
“Meanwhile, the pain—shooting, stabbing, constricting pain—was getting worse. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged.”
Clarke then said she started to move her toes and fingers and recite lines to show herself she wasn’t paralyzed. A woman helped her in the locker room and the rest was fuzzy. She remembers an ambulance, a siren and being on a gurney.
“Finally, I was sent for an MRI, a brain scan. 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. I’d had an aneurysm, an arterial rupture,” Clarke stated.
“As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter,” she continued. “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.”
Clarke was transported to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery where she agreed to have brain surgery. She was 24 at the time. She said the surgery was “minimally invasive” because they didn’t open her skull. The operation was three hours long.
She said that the two-week mark post-surgery with minimal complications was a good sign for recovery. Two weeks after the exam she was doing cognitive exercises and forgot her name.
“I’d never experienced fear like that—a sense of doom closing in,” she wrote. “I could see my life ahead, and it wasn’t worth living. I am an actor; I need to remember my lines. Now I couldn’t recall my name.”
Clarke was experiencing aphasia, which was caused by the trauma her brain has suffered. It past after a week. A month after being admitted to the hospital she was released. She was told that she has a “smaller aneurysm on the other side of my brain, and it could “pop” at any time” but basically to not worry just keep an eye on it.
She returned to work to film season 2 and told her bosses about her aneurysm but didn’t want to make it a big deal.
“On the set, I didn’t miss a beat, but I struggled. Season 2 would be my worst,” Clarke remembered. “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.”
In 2013 after finishing season 3 of GoT, Clarke was in New York City and decided to get a brain scan five days before her SAG insurance was up. The “smaller aneurysm” doubled in size and they decided to go into surgery to take care of it. it was supposed to be an easy surgery.
“When they woke me, I was screaming in pain,” she recalled. “The procedure had 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. This time they needed to access my brain in the old-fashioned way—through my skull. And the operation had to happen immediately.”
Clarke said the recovery the second time around was brutal. Parts of her skull were now titanium, there was a drain coming out of her head and she has a scar going from her scalp to her ear. She was hospitalized for a month.
“I am now at a hundred percent,” Clarke wrote. She now is devoting her time to work with SameYou, a charity that “aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.”