Soon after wrapping the first season of TV phenomenon Game of Thrones in February 2011, Emilia Clarke felt a headache building while exercising in a London gym.
“My trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain,” describes Clarke, who plays Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen aka Khaleesi. “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.”
Sharing her story for the first time in a March 21 essay for The New Yorker, the star, 32, revealed that in the past eight years she has undergone three life-saving brain surgeries.
Following the first gym incident, “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 writes. “I’d had an aneurysm, an arterial rupture. As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter.”
In a “fog of unconsciousness,” she was rushed by ambulance for an urgent “minimally invasive” three-hour surgery. When she woke up, “the pain was unbearable,” she writes in her essay. In the weeks following the operation, she was unable to say her own name: “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,” she pens. “I could see my life ahead, and it wasn’t worth living. I am an actor; I need to remember my lines … I was suffering from a condition called aphasia, a consequence of the trauma my brain had suffered. In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. I asked the medical staff to let me die.”
After a week in the ICU, the aphasia passed. She resumed promoting Game of Thrones but “was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die,” and had to take morphine to manage the pain, she writes in her New Yorker essay. When filming began on Season 2 “I didn’t miss a beat, but I struggled.”
In 2013, during one of Clarke’s regular brain scans, doctors found that a second aneurysm had doubled in size, and required a second, but “easier” operation. However, it didn’t go as planned. “When they woke me, I was screaming in pain. The procedure had failed,” she writes. “The doctors made it plain that my chances of surviving were precarious if they didn’t operate again.”
After another, more invasive operation through the skull, “I looked as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced,” writes Clarke. “I emerged from the operation with a drain coming out of my head. Bits of my skull had been replaced by titanium.”
After a month in the hospital, “There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks … I felt like a shell of myself,” she continues. Since that dark time, however, her health has steadily improved. “In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes. I am now at a hundred per cent.”
Clarke has now created a charity called SameYou to raise money for people recovering from brain injuries and strokes. In finally telling her story, she hopes to close a personal chapter, in step with a professional finale:
“There is something gratifying, and beyond lucky, about coming to the end of Thrones,” she said. “I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next.”