Game of Thrones star Emila Clarke revealed in a first-person essay just published on The New Yorker website that she weathered two life-threatening brain hemorrhages since the start of 2011 — the same year that the HBO fantasy series premiered and catapulted the then-24-year-old actress to international success in the role of Daenerys Targaryen.
“Just when all my childhood dreams seemed to have come true, I nearly lost my mind and then my life,” the three-time Emmy nominee wrote. “I’ve never told this story publicly, but now it’s time…”
Coinciding with the essay’s publication, Clarke announced her new charity organization, SameYou, which will champion improved neuro-recovery care for young adults who suffer brain injury or stroke and then face a long and costly struggle to reclaim their lives. Advancements in acute care have pushed the survival rate of brain injuries up to new highs and widened the victim population — a population of 50 million people globally that, quietly, has included Clarke among its number since February 2011.
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In the New Yorker piece, “A Battle for My Life,” Clarke explained the harrowing experience of finding out that something was terribly wrong inside her head. The London native experienced a “shooting, stabbing, constricting pain” in her skull during a workout with her personal trainer.
“Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room,” Clarke wrote. “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. For a few moments, I tried to will away the pain and the nausea. I said to myself, “I will not be paralyzed.” I moved my fingers and toes to make sure that was true. To keep my memory alive, I tried to recall, among other things, some lines from Game of Thrones.”
At a nearby hospital, the M.R.I. results were ominous: an aneurysm requiring urgent brain surgery. An endovascular coiling procedure saved her life but then, at a critical two-week mark in post-op recovery, a nurse asked the actress to say her name as part of a series of cognitive exercises. Clarke couldn’t do it.
“My full name is Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke. But now I couldn’t remember it,” Clarke wrote in the essay. “Instead, nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic…I am an actor; I need to remember my lines. Now I couldn’t recall my name.”
Clarke was gripped by a condition called aphasia. It passed after a week and, a month later, Clarke was back at work on Thrones — but the actress was accompanied by dread to every scene of every day of production. That’s because a second, smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain had been detected. It was a threat that could “pop” at any time. By 2013, it had doubled in size. Surgery was done and, again, was successful.
The medical maladies didn’t deter Clarke’s career success. Her character has moved to the center spotlight on Game of Thrones, which is poised to start the eighth and final season of its historic HBO run. In 2013, Clarke also made her Broadway debut in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the role of Holly Golightly. In 2015, Terminator Genisys, she added Sarah Connor to the list of formidable women she has portrayed. In 2018, the matriarch of House Targaryen briefly joined the Jedi universe when Clarke played Qi’ra in Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018).
The professional triumphs, it turns out, obscured the personal agonies she endured. “The recovery was even more painful than it had been after the first surgery,” Clarke wrote of her 2013 ordeal. “I looked as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced.”
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