Emilia Clarke Reveals She Survived 2 Life-Threatening Brain Aneurysms

Game of Thrones star opens up about her health battle in a new essay

By Jess Cohen Mar 21, 2019 6:14 PMTags
Watch: Emilia Clarke Survived 2 Life-Threatening Brain Aneurysms

Emilia Clarke is opening up about her health journey.

In an essay entitled "A Battle for My Life," published on The New Yorker's website on Thursday, the Game of Thrones star reveals that she almost died. Clarke begins the deeply personal piece in 2011, explaining that, to relieve the stress after filming the first season of the HBO series, she worked 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," Clarke writes. "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."

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"Then 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," the 32-year-old actress continues. "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."

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Clarke goes on to explain that she tried to "will away the pain and the nausea." She even tried to recall lines from Game of Thrones to keep her memory alive.

From the gym, Clarke was taken by ambulance to the hospital where she was sent for an MRI.

"The diagnosis was quick and ominous: a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain. 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."

After the diagnosis, Clarke, who was just 24 at the time, was transported to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London where should would undergo brain surgery.

Macall B.Polay/HBO

"The operation lasted three hours. When I woke, the pain was unbearable. I had no idea where I was," Clarke recalls. "My field of vision was constricted. There was a tube down my throat and I was parched and nauseated. 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."

Things took a turn when, one night, Clarke couldn't remember her full name.

"I was suffering from a condition called aphasia, a consequence of the trauma my brain had suffered," Clarke explains. "Even as I was muttering nonsense, my mum did me the great kindness of ignoring it and trying to convince me that I was perfectly lucid. But I knew I was faltering. 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—centered on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost."

After a week back in the I.C.U., the aphasia passed.

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Before returning to work, Clarke was told she had a "smaller aneurysm" on the other side of her brain that could "pop" at any time.

"The doctors said, though, that it was small and it was possible it would remain dormant and harmless indefinitely," Clarke writes. "We would just keep a careful watch."

"I told my bosses at 'Thrones' about my condition, but I didn't want it to be a subject of public discussion and dissection. The show must go on!" Clarke writes. "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 says of season two, "If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die."

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After finishing season three of the series, Clarke appeared as Holly Golightly on Broadway. While in New York City, Clarke had a brain scan which showed "the growth on the other side of my brain had doubled in size" and needed to have surgery.

However, when she woke up from surgery she was "screaming in 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."

She goes on to state that the recovery was "even more painful" than after her first surgery, spending another month in the hospital. Clarke notes that she previously denied a story about her surgery, but now she wants to tell the truth.

"In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes," she shares with her fans. "I am now at a hundred per cent."

Clarke has helped to develop the charity SameYou, which helps to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.