Emilia Clarke says she’s “cheated death” after surviving two brain aneurysms, with the first one taking place after she had just finished filming the first season of “Game of Thrones.”
In a lengthy op-ed for The New Yorker, Clarke explained that she started working out with a trainer to relieve stress from the attention she was about to get from her starring role as Daenerys Targaryen. During a workout in London, she “felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain,” and she started 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,” she wrote. “For a few moments, I tried to will away the pain and the nausea. I said to myself, ‘I will not be paralyzed.’ I moved my fingers and toes to make sure that was true.
Clarke was taken to the hospital, where a brain scan revealed that she had suffered a “subarachnoid hemorrhage,” an arterial rupture aneurysm.
“As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter,” she explained. “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.”
In retrospect, Clarke said she saw early signs of what was to come. During the time she was auditioning for “Game of Thrones,” she thought of herself as healthy, although “sometimes I got a little light-headed, because I often had low blood pressure and a low heart rate. Once in a while, I’d get dizzy and pass out. When I was fourteen, I had a migraine that kept me in bed for a couple of days, and in drama school I’d collapse once in a while. But it all seemed manageable, part of the stress of being an actor and of life in general.”
The first surgery had been minimally invasive, but when Clarke woke up, she had “unbearable” pain and her field of vision was constricted, and she couldn’t remember her name.
“In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug,” she wrote. “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.”
Then, Clarke was told she had a smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain that could “pop” anytime, but it should just be watched for the time being. She went into filming Season 2, and she felt weak and thought she “was going to die.”
She added, “On the first day of shooting for Season 2, in Dubrovnik, I kept telling myself, ‘I am fine, I’m in my twenties, I’m fine.’ I threw myself into the work. But, after that first day of filming, I barely made it back to the hotel before I collapsed of exhaustion. On the set, I didn’t miss a beat, but I struggled. 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.”
After finishing Season 3, Clarke went in for a brain scan and doctors told her that the growth had doubled in size and that it should be taken care of. Another surgery was up next, but 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,” Clarke said. “This time they needed to access my brain in the old-fashioned way–through my skull. And the operation had to happen immediately.”
She emerged from the operation with a drain coming out of her head, some parts of her brain replaced by titanium.
“I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye,” she said. “There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks. I was raised never to say, ‘It’s not fair;’ I was taught to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you. But, going through this experience for the second time, all hope receded. 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.”
She wrote: “A few weeks after that second surgery, I went with a few other cast members to Comic-Con, in San Diego. The fans at Comic-Con are hardcore; you don’t want to disappoint them. There were several thousand people in the audience, and, right before we went on to answer questions, I was hit by a horrific headache. Back came that sickeningly familiar sense of fear. I thought, This is it. My time is up; I’ve cheated death twice and now he’s coming to claim me.”
Read Clarke’s full op-ed here.