The first season of Game of Thrones had just ended, and every actor and actress in the series suddenly found themselves at the height of fandom. But Emilia Clarke and the Queen of Dragons had a more serious battle at hand, being struck down with the first of two brain aneurysms once filming stopped.
Clarke has spoken about the trauma of that experience for the first time in a New Yorker piece today. The specific bleed was a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a type of stroke that kills one-third of suffers either during, or shortly thereafter. The patients that do survive have to have immediate treatment to seal off the aneurysm, due to the extreme risk of a follow-up attack.
It’s a horrific thing to have to face, and Clarke outlines that in the most precise of terms. “The rest is kind of blurry as to how I got to the loo, but I crawled my way [to the toilet], and I was just violently ill. And I knew in that moment – I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt – that [a] headache like that, and throwing up, meant brain damage,” Clarke said.
Clarke was taken to London’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, where surgeons operated on her for 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.
One night, after I’d passed that crucial mark, a nurse woke me and, as part of a series of cognitive exercises, she said, “What’s your name?” My full name is Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke. But now I couldn’t remember it. 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.
The forgetfulness is not uncommon. Aphasia is a disorder that can happen after trauma to the brain, and commonly happens after a stroke. Clarke was admitted to hospital for around a month, but only weeks after she was admitted the actress was back on set filming season 2 of Game of Thrones.
When asked why she didn’t reveal the brain surgery earlier, Clarke admitted that job security was chief on mind. Game of Thrones was her first breakout gig, and she was concerned that it might be taken away if she flagged concerns.
“I didn’t want anyone to think that I’m not capable of doing the job they had given me … I think I was also, I just didn’t want to be a bother,” she said. “More than anything, I was a young girl who was given a huge opportunity and I did not, for any reason, want to give anyone a reason to think anything other than fully capable of fulfilling my duties. And I didn’t even know what the show was at point; all I knew was that I had a job.”
Clarke was back in surgery in 2013, having visited a hospital in New York for a regular brain scan. Scans revealed that the growth in her brain had grown, only for a nightmarish outcome: Clarke woke up screaming in pain after the procedure had failed, and doctors needed her verbal consent to operate again, this time by cracking open her skull.
“I emerged from the operation with a drain coming out of my head,” she said. “Bits of my skull had been replaced by titanium.” Clarke explained in an audio supplement that doctors were certain that she had suffered certain brain damage, although they weren’t sure what parts of her personality or functions would be affected.
Out of all the tales to come from Game of Thrones, this one might actually be one of the most staggering. Having to go under for multiple brain procedures – facing the very real, serious prospect of death, and then the fear and concern around what potential damage might mean for the rest of her life – is a frightening enough prospect.
But to go through that amount of pain, months of being waylaid in hospital, only to back it all up and resume shooting and filming is astounding. There are so many other aspects of the experience that you should absolutely read. There’s plenty of detail in the accompanying audio interview as well, so make sure you listen to that as well.