'Game of Thrones' star Emilia Clarke reveals she suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms while filming
On Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke portrays Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled heiress who transforms from a meek political pawn into a fierce, independent ruler. With the help of her formidable army of the Unsullied and three fire-breathing dragons, she becomes powerful enough to make a real stake for the coveted Iron Throne. The character is a fan favorite for her remarkable transformation, and steely resolve in a brutal patriarchal society.
But while Clarke was playing such a strong character, she "hardly felt like a conquering spirit," according to an article she penned for The New Yorker. In the piece, the 32-year-old reveals that she suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms while filming early seasons of Game of Thrones. "Just when all my childhood dreams seemed to have come true, I nearly lost my mind and then my life," the actress recalls.
Clarke suffered the first aneurysm at the beginning of 2011, just after shooting season one. "I was terrified," she writes. "Terrified of the attention, terrified of a business I barely understood, terrified of trying to make good on the faith that the creators of Thrones had put in me.I felt, in every way, exposed. In the very first episode, I appeared naked, and, from that first press junket onward, I always got the same question: some variation of, 'You play such a strong woman, and yet you take off your clothes. Why?' In my head, I'd respond, 'How many men do I need to kill to prove myself?'"
In order to relieve the stress, she began working with a personal trainer. However, one day she suffered a terrible headache in the locker room, and felt unusually fatigued during exercises. "My trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain. 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," she continued. "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."
A concerned woman in a neighboring stall came to Clarke's rescue, and she was rushed to the emergency room. After getting an MRI, she was diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke. "I'd had an aneurysm, an arterial rupture," she explains. "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."
At 24 years old, Clarke secretly underwent brain surgery, then stayed in the hospital a month to recuperate. But while she was free to return to her daily life, the doctors warned her that another, smaller aneurysm on her brain could 'pop' at any time. After filming season 3 in 2013, Clarke underwent a second brain surgery, which did not go as planned, causing excruciating pain.
"The recovery was even more painful than it had been after the first surgery. I looked as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced," she recalls. "I emerged from the operation with a drain coming out of my head. Bits of my skull had been replaced by titanium. These days, you can’t see the scar that curves from my scalp to my ear, but I didn’t know at first that it wouldn’t be visible."
Clarke spent another month in the hospital to recover, and during those dark days she nearly lost all hope. "I couldn’t look anyone in the eye," she writes. "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."
Thankfully, the actress rebounded, growing stronger and stronger just like her iconic character, the mother of dragons. At the time, the situation was gravely serious, but today she's able to joke about it: "There was, above all, the constant worry about cognitive or sensory losses," she writes. "Would it be concentration? Memory? Peripheral vision? Now I tell people that what it robbed me of is good taste in men." (From 2012 to 2013, Clarke dated Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Burn, Seth!)