Emilia Clarke, best known for her role as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, comes off as a fearless warrior and mother of dragons on the hit series, but behind the scenes, the young actress’ life has been chaotic and full of life-threatening health crises.
In a heartbreaking personal essay for The New Yorker, Clarke, 32, spoke out about the two aneurysms she secretly suffered while filming the show — both of which almost killed her.
“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,” admitted the star.
In the start of 2011, just when she had finished filming the first season of Game of Thrones, the issues began.
Stressed out from the show, and the pressure and attention that came with it, Clarke began working out with a trainer.
“On the morning of February 11, 2011, I was getting dressed in the locker room of a gym in Crouch End, North London, when I started to feel a bad headache coming on. I was so fatigued that I could barely put on my sneakers. When I started my workout, I had to force myself through the first few exercises,” she wrote.
Clarke then got onto the plank position and “immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain.”
She told her trainer she had to take a break and ran to the bathroom to vomit.
“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 writes.
As she suffered from the pain and nausea, she told herself “I will not be paralyzed,” and moved her 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,” Clarke wrote. “I heard a woman’s voice coming from the next stall, asking me if I was O.K. No, I wasn’t. She came to help me and maneuvered me onto my side, in the recovery position.”
Soon, an ambulance came to pick her up and she was rushed to the hospital.
Once she arrived, doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her, so they couldn’t give her any drugs to ease the pain.
Finally, she was sent for an MRI scan and diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain.
The National ENQUIRER first broke the news of her aneurysm in 2013. The actress, however, denied it.
A source exclusively told The ENQUIRER at the time that "everyone was so scared for her," as they didn't expect someone so young to have something so serious.
“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,” said Clarke.
At 24 years old, the actress was taken into emergency brain surgery. It lasted three hours, and it was not her last.
“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,” she wrote. “They moved me out of the I.C.U. 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.”
While this was all happening, Clarke said she kept thinking about her career and busy schedule. She thought: “‘I don’t have time for brain surgery.’”
One night, a nurse woke her up and asked her her full name, but she couldn’t remember it.
"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,” she recalled.
Her mother, who slept next to her in the hospital room, told her she was doing great, but Clarke truly believed her life was over.
“In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. I asked the medical staff to let me die,” she wrote. “My job — my entire dream of what my life would be — centered on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost."
After the surgery, doctors told her she had a smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain, and it could “pop” at any time. They said it could remain dormant but they would have to monitor it carefully.
“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,” she wrote.
Though she tried to keep up with it all, there were times when she felt she couldn’t breathe, “much less 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,” recalled Clarke.
The actress says that though she thought of herself as a healthy person before her crisis, she now recalls some red flags that she should not have overlooked.
“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 14, 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,” she said.
On set, she didn’t miss a beat, but she struggled.
“If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die,” she wrote.
In 2013, she went in for a regular brain scan and was told the growth on the other side of her brain had doubled in size. She went into emergency surgery, again, but the operation failed.
Clarke recalled waking up in excruciating pain only to be told by doctors they had to puncture her skull to reach her brain and solve the problem. The surgery was successful.
“I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks,” said Clarke.
A few weeks after her second surgery, Clarke was about to go on a live interview when she suddenly got 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,” she wrote.
But she survived, and now, she’s recovered.
"I am now at a hundred per cent,” she boasted.
Apart from continuing her acting career, Clarke is now throwing herself into charity. With partners in the U.S. and U.K., she developed Same You, an organization and that aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.
“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,” she said.