Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke has opened up about the two brain aneurysms that nearly took her life in the early years of the hugely-popular HBO series.
In a personal essay published to the New Yorker, the 32-year-old reveals that she underwent two life-saving brain surgeries over the last eight years to correct two different aneurysm growths.
A few months after winning the role of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, the then-24-year-old actress noticed a “shooting, stabbing, constricting pain” in her head during a workout with her trainer.
“My trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain,” she wrote.
“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.”
She was immediately rushed to hospital where she underwent an MRI scan that showed an aneurysm requiring urgent brain surgery.
“The diagnosis was quick and ominous: a subarachnoid haemorrhage [SAH], a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain,” she said.
“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.”
She spent four days in the intensive care unit before spending another week and a half recovering. However, it took two weeks for the actress to remember her own name, a result of a condition called aphasia.
“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,” she said.
“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 — centred on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost. I was sent back to the I.C.U. and, after about a week, the aphasia passed. I was able to speak.”
Unfortunately, during this time, doctors discovered another smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain that could rupture at any minute.
While they couldn’t do anything for the time being, Clarke returned to press junkets for Game of Thrones but “was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die.” She had to take morphine between interviews at times to manage the pain.
Shortly after, she filmed the show’s second season which was a huge challenge.
“If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die,” she admitted.
In 2013, during one of the then-27-year-old’s regular brain scans, doctors found that her second aneurysm had doubled in size, requiring a second operation.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go to plan.
“When they woke me, I was screaming in pain. The procedure had failed,” she admitted. “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.”
While this surgery was expected to be “much easier” than the first, Clarke wrote that it “was even more painful than it had been after the first surgery.”
“I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope,” she said. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, 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.”
Fortunately, Clarke made a full recovery and is “now at a hundred per cent”.
To support others recovering from brain injuries and strokes, the British actress has created a charity, SameYou, which raises funds and helps increase neuro-rehabilitation access to those struggling.
“I feel endless gratitude—to my mum and brother, to my doctors and nurses, to my friends. Every day, I miss my father, who died of cancer in 2016, and I can never thank him enough for holding my hand to the very end.”
While rumours around Clarke’s health battle has been circulating for years – which the actor denied at the time – she decided that it was finally time to come forward and share her story to prove that brain aneurysms can happen at absolutely any age, regardless of how young you are.