We all know Emilia Clarke as the badass Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, but what fans might not know is that she’s had to fight her fair share of battles outside the show too.
Keep reading for her terrifying account…
Clarke revealed the harrowing truth behind her hospitalization for the brain aneurysm that almost killed her.
Clarke sat down with CBS’ Tracy Smith for an interview back in 2019 during which she shared photos of what she looked like after having undergone the major surgery needed to fix her brain.
In the interview, Clarke described both the physical and mental pain that overtook her during this difficult time of her life…
Saying that after the second surgery, “it was much harder to stay optimistic.”
After finding out a section of her brain actually died from lack of oxygen, Clarke said she worried she would never act again.
She told Smith it was “a day-to-day thing.” Continuing, “I definitely went through a period of being… down. Putting it mildly.”
She explained, “If a part of your brain doesn’t get blood to it for a minute, it will just no longer work. It’s like you short circuit. So, I had that.” She continued by saying, “For a very long time, I thought it was my ability to act… that was a deep paranoia.”
“So, they literally were looking at the brain and being like, ‘Well, we think it could be… could be her concentration. It could be her peripheral vision.'”
But the actress joked, “I always say it’s my taste in men.”
Clarke said it was actually playing Daenerys that helped her recover her confidence. It was that “badass character that ultimately saved [her] life.” She said playing Daenerys left her “no time to question her mortality.”
“You go on the set and you play a badass character, and you walk through fire, and that became the thing that kept me from considering my own mortality.”
6 weeks after this hospital stay, Clarke was back at work on Game of Thrones.
But soon after, she was back for a second surgery and found it much harder to stay optimistic. But again, she recovered. Now, Clarke is using her renown to start a charity called SameYou for others who have struggled with brain injuries like her own.
“I really really really am going to put my heart, soul, and back into transforming aftercare for brain injury recovery. Simply bringing awareness to the invisible disease that is brain injury,” she said.
At thirty-five, Clarke is officially in the clear now, but let’s go back to what happened all the way back in 2011 when the aneurysm first occurred.
“It was the beginning of 2011. I had just finished filming the first season of Game of Thrones, a new HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels,” She revealed in a poignant article for The New Yorker that she suffered not 1 but 2 major brain aneurysms while filming the show. Both almost cost her her life.
Clarke was given the role of Khaleesi with almost no prior acting experience.
She immediately skyrocketed to stardom, almost overnight. She said, “I was terrified. 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.”
Of course, the press was obsessed with the show’s frequent nude scenes.
“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?'” she continued.
To get in shape for the role, Clarke worked out with a trainer.
One morning as she was getting ready at her gym in London, before a morning training session, a bad headache started to creep in.
What happened next was truly terrifying…
She instantly knew something was very very wrong.
“Then my trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band was 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. Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room,” she said.
But this wasn’t regular post-workout pain, this was something else entirely…
“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 revealed.
Clarke, exhausted and lying in a bathroom stall of her gym, tried to think of what to do next.
First, she attempted to wiggle her fingers and toes to ensure she wasn’t paralyzed. Next, she tried to recall lines from the show to see if her memory was still working. Then, thankfully, a kind woman from the next stall over came in to help and from there, according to the actress, “everything became, at once, noisy and blurry.”
“I remember the sound of a siren, an ambulance; I heard new voices, someone saying that my pulse was weak. I was throwing up bile. Someone found my phone and called my parents, who live in Oxfordshire, and they were told to meet me at the emergency room of Whittington Hospital,” she said. But still, no one had answers about what had happened to her…
Soon after, she got her answer, and it was life-changing…
“Finally, I was sent for an MRI, a brain scan. 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 said.
Most people who suffer subarachnoid hemorrhage strokes die immediately.
Those who don’t are rushed into surgery — a terrifying, risky procedure that isn’t guaranteed to work — which is what happened next.
Clarke detailed the surgery and its difficult and painful aftermath.
“The operation lasted three hours. 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.
“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,” she said.
But she still wasn’t out of the woods.
After a few nights of recovery, a nurse asked: “What is your name?” It’s a routine question asked of those who have undergone brain surgery to check their memory, but Clarke suddenly couldn’t remember.
“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. 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,” Clarke said.
She was suffering from something called “aphasia,” a condition that occurs after brain trauma.
“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.”
Eventually, Clarke recovered, the aphasia receded, and things started to improve.
She was due back on the Game of Thrones set. And that’s when doctors told her she had “a smaller aneurysm on the other side of my brain, and it could ‘pop’ at any time.”
Clarke had no choice but to go back to work, even with the knowledge that her brain could malfunction and instantly kill her at any moment.
Through the publicity tour and shooting the next season of Game of Thrones, Clarke said she was exhausted. She was completely depleted and had to “sip morphine” between interviews. Every night after filming, she would collapse into bed, unsure she would be able to rise and work the next day.
Soon after, doctors recommended she take care of that other, smaller aneurysm. They planned an operation, but things went horribly wrong…
It hadn’t worked.
“When they woke me, I was screaming in pain. The procedure had failed. 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.”
Bits of her skull had to be covered in titanium, and after the surgery, she had drains coming from the sides of her head to relieve pressure. She was terrified she’d never act again.
Again, slowly but surely, with the determination of the Mother of Dragons, Clarke recovered. She survived.
And Clarke chose now to tell her story to let the people know they are not alone if they suffer from terrible traumas. She closed the piece with a gorgeous gem of inspiration: “I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next.”
Her words are unbelievable considering everything she’s been through, and she recently opened up to the BBC to share more about the aftermath of her surgeries.
Speaking on BBC’s Sunday Morning, she said: “The amount of my brain that is no longer usable — it’s remarkable that I am able to speak, sometimes articulately, and live my life completely normally with absolutely no repercussions.
“I am in the really, really, really small minority of people that can survive that.”
Talking about her brain scan, Clarke said: “There’s quite a bit missing, which always makes me laugh. Because strokes, basically, as soon as any part of your brain doesn’t get blood for a second, it’s gone. And so the blood finds a different route to get around but then whatever bit it’s missing is therefore gone.”
Clarke is currently acting in the play The Seagull, in London, which is a two-and-a-half-hour theatre production.
Amazingly, she can do the whole thing without missing a beat.