Emilia Clarke Suffered Two Life-Threatening Brain Aneurysms While Filming "Game of Thrones"
"I immediately felt as though an elastic band was squeezing my brain."
We all know Emilia Clarke for playing Khaleesi, aka the Mother of Dragons, on HBO's mega-hit series Game of Thrones. The actor is known to keep her personal life out of the spotlight, but she recently shared her shocking health struggles in an emotional essay for The New Yorker.
Entitled "A Battle for My Life," the essay dives into how Clarke almost died not once, but twice after experiencing two life-threatening brain aneurysms. The first occurred in 2011 when Clarke was 24, while she was in the middle of a workout. Clarke said she was getting dressed in the locker room when she started to feel a bad headache coming on. "I was so fatigued that I could barely put on my sneakers," she wrote. "When I started my workout, I had to force myself through the first few exercises." (Related: Gwendoline Christie Says Changing Her Body for Game of Thrones Wasn't Easy)
"Then my trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band was squeezing my brain," she continued. "I tried to ignore the pain and push through it, but I just couldn't. I told my trainer I had to take a break. Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room. I reached the toilet, sank to my knees, and proceeded to be violently, voluminously ill. Meanwhile, the pain-shooting, stabbing, constricting pain-was getting worse. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged."
Clarke was then rushed to the hospital and an MRI revealed that she had suffered from a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding in the space surrounding the brain. "As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter," Clarke wrote. "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." (Related: The Stroke Risk Factors All Women Should Know)
Quickly following her diagnosis, Clarke underwent brain surgery. "The operation lasted three hours," she wrote. "When I woke, the pain was unbearable. I had no idea where I was. My field of vision was constricted. There was a tube down my throat and I was parched and nauseated. They moved me out of the ICU after four days and told me that the great hurdle was to make it to the two-week mark. If I made it that long with minimal complications, my chances of a good recovery were high."
But just as Clarke thought she was in the clear, one night she found herself unable to remember her full name. "I was suffering from a condition called aphasia, a consequence of the trauma my brain had suffered," she explained. "Even as I was muttering nonsense, my mum did me the great kindness of ignoring it and trying to convince me that I was perfectly lucid. But I knew I was faltering. In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. 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."
After spending another week in ICU, the aphasia passed and Clarke began gearing up to start filming season 2 of GOT. But just as she was about to return to work, Clarke learned that she had a "smaller aneurysm" on the other side of her brain, that doctors said could "pop" at any time. (Related: Lena Headey from Game of Thrones Opens Up About Postpartum Depression)
"The doctors said, though, that it was small and it was possible it would remain dormant and harmless indefinitely," Clarke wrote. "We would just keep a careful watch." (Related: I Was a Healthy 26-Year-Old When I Suffered a Brain Stem Stroke with No Warning)
So, she began filming season 2, while feeling "woozy," "weak," and "deeply unsure" of herself. "If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die," she wrote.
It wasn't until she finished filming season 3 that another brain scan revealed that the growth on the other side of her brain had doubled in size. She needed to have another surgery. When she woke up from the procedure, she was "screaming in pain."
"The procedure had failed," Clarke wrote. "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 the old-fashioned way-through my skull. And the operation had to happen immediately."
In an interview with CBS This Morning, Clarke said that, during her second aneurysm, "there was a bit of my brain that actually died." She explained, "If a part of your brain doesn't get blood to it for a minute, it will just no longer work. It's like you short circuit. So, I had that."
Even more terrifying, Clarke's doctors weren't quite sure how her second brain aneurysm would affect her. "They literally were looking at the brain and being like, 'Well, we think it could be her concentration, it could be her peripheral vision [affected],'" she explained. "I always say it's my taste in men that's no longer there!"
Jokes aside, though, Clarke said she briefly feared she might lose her ability to act. "That was a deep paranoia, from the first one as well. I was like, 'What if something has short-circuited in my brain and I can't act anymore?' I mean, literally it's been my reason for living for a very long time," she told CBS This Morning. She also shared photos of herself in the hospital with the news program, which were taken in 2011 when she was healing from her first aneurysm.
Her second recovery was even more painful than her first surgery because of the failed procedure, causing her to spend another month in the hospital. If you're wondering how Clarke mustered the strength and resilience to heal from a second brain aneurysm, she told CBS This Morning that playing a strong, empowered woman on Game of Thrones actually helped her feel more self-assured IRL, too. While recovery was a day-to-day process, she explained, stepping onto the GoT set and playing Khaleesi "became the thing that just saved me from considering my own mortality." (Related: Gwendoline Christie Says Changing Her Body for "Game of Thrones" Wasn't Easy)
Today, Clarke is healthy and thriving. "In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes," she wrote in her essay for The New Yorker. "I am now at a hundred percent."
There's no denying that Clarke has been deeply impacted by her personal health struggles. Beyond sharing her story with fans, she also wanted to do her part in helping others in the same position. The actor took to her Instagram to share that she's developed a charity called Same You, which will help provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke. "Same You is full to bursting with love, brain power and the help of amazing people with amazing stories," she wrote alongside the post.
Just when we thought Dany couldn't be more badass.