In an op-ed published by The New Yorker, “Game of Thrones” Emmy nominee Emilia Clarke reveals she suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms during the making of “Game of Thrones.” The first occurred in February 2011 shortly after Clarke finished production on the HBO fantasy drama’s first season. While working out with her trainer, Clarke got a headache that “felt as though an elastic band were squeezing [her] brain.”
“I made it to the locker room. I reached the toilet, sank to my knees, and proceeded to be violently, voluminously ill,” Clarke writes. “Meanwhile, the pain — shooting, stabbing, constricting pain — was getting worse. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged.”
Clarke said she began “throwing up bile” and was immediately taken to the hospital, where she was told by doctors she suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH).
“I’d had an aneurysm, an arterial rupture,” Clarke writes. “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.”
Clarke went into a three-hour surgery that saved her life by blocking the aneurysm from spreading. The actress writes the pain she felt when she woke up was “unbearable.” In the days that followed, Clarke struggled with cognitive exercises like being able to say her name aloud. Eventually the actress recovered, but the residual effects from her stroke continued to effect her through the next season of “Thrones.”
“Even before we began filming Season 2, I was deeply unsure of myself,” Clarke writes. “I was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die…The pain was there, and the fatigue was like the worst exhaustion I’d ever experienced, multiplied by a million… 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.”
Clarke’s second aneurysm occurred after finishing “Thrones” Season 3. The actress was in New York City performing on Broadway and was told by doctors after a routine brain scan that a growth on the side of her brain from the first aneurysm had doubled in size. The surgery was supposed to relatively minor compared to her first, but Clarke said she woke up in “screaming pain.”
“The procedure had failed,” Clarke writes. “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.”
Clarke spent a month in the hospital recovering from the major surgery. “I lost all hope,” she writes. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks…I do remember being convinced that I wasn’t going to live.”
The actress eventually did make a full recovery and carried on with her “Thrones” duties without ever going public with her health scares. “There is something gratifying, and beyond lucky, about coming to the end of ‘Thrones,'” Clarke concludes. “I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next.”
Read Clarke’s full essay over on The New Yorker website. The actress returns to “Game of Thrones” when the final season begins on HBO April 14.