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Emilia Clarke survived two devastating brain aneurysms – and her attitude is incredible

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Kayleigh Dray
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Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke on the red carpet

“She’s kind and determined and funny and aware,” says the Game of Thrones star.

As Daenerys ‘Mother of Dragons’ Targaryen and Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones stars Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey are rivals vying to win the Iron Throne. In real life, though, these powerful women are so much more than co-stars: they’re friends and supporters, too.

So, when Clarke opened up about the secret health battle she suffered while filming the first season of HBO’s fantasy series, Headey was quick to share a message of support on Instagram.

“It took me a while to know this woman (there are 64,000 of us after all),” she wrote, sharing a photo of Clarke to her feed.

“Not until she spoke to me about her experience did I fully realise the warrior she truly is (MOD for real x209840000). She does really great things for causes that deserve it. She’s kind and determined and funny and aware. Here’s to Emilia Clarke!”

Headey isn’t wrong: as Daenerys, Clarke is one of the most powerful women in HBO’s Game of Thrones – and her character has survived countless attempts on her life to make it through to the endgame of season eight.

However, it seems Clarke is every bit as strong as the Khaleesi – if not more so – as the actress has now revealed via the New Yorker that she was just 24 years old when, during one of her regular gym workouts, she suddenly “felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain” and “proceeded to be violently, voluminously ill”.

After Clarke was found slumped in the toilets, she was rushed to hospital, where an MRI (brain) scan revealed that she had suffered “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,” writes the actress. “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.

“I remember being told that I should sign a release form for surgery. Brain surgery? I was in the middle of my very busy life—I had no time for brain surgery. But, finally, I settled down and signed. And then I was unconscious. For the next three hours, surgeons went about repairing my brain. This would not be my last surgery, and it would not be the worst. I was twenty-four years old.”

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Clarke – who says she suffered from low blood pressure and migraines as a teenager – made it through the three-hour surgery. However, while she was in hospital, doctors found a second, smaller aneurysm that needed to be carefully monitored. Firmly of the belief that “the show must go on”, Clarke returned to the Game of Thrones set to film season two of the show.

“I was deeply unsure of myself,” she says, thinking back on that period in her life. “I was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die. Staying at a hotel in London during a publicity tour, I vividly remember thinking, I can’t keep up or think or breathe, much less try to be charming. I sipped on morphine in between interviews. The pain was there, and the fatigue was like the worst exhaustion I’d ever experienced, multiplied by a million. And, let’s face it, I’m an actor. Vanity comes with the job. I spent way too much time thinking about how I looked. If all this weren’t enough, I seemed to whack my head every time I tried to get in a taxi.”

Doctors eventually told Clarke that she would have to undergo surgery again. This time, though, they were forced to open her skull up for an incredibly painful procedure.

“When they woke me, I was screaming in pain,” she writes. “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.

“The recovery was even more painful than it had been after the first surgery. I looked as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced. I emerged from the operation with a drain coming out of my head. Bits of my skull had been replaced by titanium. These days, you can’t see the scar that curves from my scalp to my ear, but I didn’t know at first that it wouldn’t be visible. And there was, above all, the constant worry about cognitive or sensory losses. Would it be concentration? Memory? Peripheral vision? Now I tell people that what it robbed me of is good taste in men. But, of course, none of this seemed remotely funny at the time.” 

However, as Clarke notes at the end of her powerful essay, she has since gone on to heal “beyond my most unreasonable hopes” – something for which she feels “endless gratitude”. And it is for this reason that she has helped develop the charity SameYou, which aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.

Writing on the charity’s official website, Clarke explains: “I know from personal experience that the support you receive when you leave hospital can have a huge impact on your recovery. Young adults in particular face immense challenges trying to rebuild their lives.

“Not everyone is able to make a full recovery after brain injury or stroke, but I believe that everyone should have access to the best possible mental and physical rehabilitation to maximise their individual recovery potential.

“I am calling for the prioritisation of increased funding for neurorehabilitation. Everyone after leaving hospital should have the multi-disciplinary rehabilitation and recovery care they desperately need.”

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The real-life Mother of Dragons finishes by saying: “Let’s fix this need for immediate post-acute rehabilitation now.”

You can read Emilia Clarke’s full essay about her brain aneurysm on the New Yorker now.

Please be aware that this article was originally published at 7pm on 21 March 2019, and has been edited to include Lena Headey’s response.

Image: Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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