The Game of Thrones star has always put up such a fierce image of herself — both onscreen as Daenerys Targaryen, and offscreen —that news of such severe health failure came as a shock to everyone. Emilia Clarke recently put up a personal essay on The New Yorker detailing her intense struggle with 2 brain bleeds.
She starts with the heart-wrenching: “Just when all my childhood dreams seemed to have come true, I nearly lost my mind and then my life. I’ve never told this story publicly, but now it’s time.” Clarke then goes on to account how, from the time season 1 had wrapped filming until the filming of season 4, she had undergone 2 aneurysms, 2 brain surgeries, and 2 recovery periods.
It had all come as a surprise to her and her family, but she admits that perhaps some of it had been expected:
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. Now I think that I might have been experiencing warning signs of what was to come.
Yet those warning signs were not fully heeded. One day while working out in a gym, Clarke began to experience an intense migraine:
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.
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. To keep my memory alive, I tried to recall, among other things, some lines from “Game of Thrones.”
She was subsequently rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH). This is a “life-threatening type of stroke” caused by the bleeding of the brain. Clarke would need immediate surgery to seal off the aneurysm and prevent further bleeding:
I remember being told that I should sign a release form for surgery. Brain surgery? 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 twenty-four years old.
According to Clarke, the first procedure done was minimally invasive. While it was successful, it was not without its trauma:
One night, after I’d passed that crucial mark, a nurse woke me and, as part of a series of cognitive exercises, she said, “What’s your name?” My full name is Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke. But now I couldn’t remember it. Instead, nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic. I’d never experienced fear like that—a sense of doom closing in. 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.
[…] 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.”
Aphasia, an impairment of language, is a natural consequence from the stress the brain endures. For Clarke, the condition was temporary and passed after 1 week. However, a more worrying finding was revealed: she had a second, smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain. There was nothing to do except to wait and keep a careful watch over it.
Still, she soldiered on and took everything in stride. A few weeks after her release from the hospital Clarke began press interviews for Game of Thrones. The struggle of her recovery made the schedule of interviews and season 2 shooting especially taxing:
Even before we began filming Season 2, I was deeply unsure of myself. I was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die. Staying at a hotel in London during a publicity tour, I vividly remember thinking, I can’t keep up or think or breathe, much less try to be charming. I sipped on morphine in between interviews. The pain was there, and the fatigue was like the worst exhaustion I’d ever experienced, multiplied by a million.
[…] 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 filming of season 3, it was discovered that her aneurysm had doubled in size. It was time to ‘take care of it’. Unfortunately, the initial procedure had gone awry and they were forced to execute a more invasive operation, opening up her skull this time. The recovery was harder but successful:
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. As I stepped offstage, my publicist looked at me and asked what was wrong. I told her, but she said that a reporter from MTV was waiting for an interview. I figured, if I’m going to go, it might as well be on live television.
But I survived. I survived MTV and so much more. In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes. I am now at a hundred per cent.”
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