Against all odds, Emilia Clarke is alive.
In a story she penned for The New Yorker that's peppered with cute memories of doing the robot at her Game of Thrones audition and later celebrating earning the role of Daenerys Targaryen with Oreos and Friends, the actress opened up about the two nearly fatal brain aneurysms she suffered over the course of filming the series that made her the star she is today.
It all started right after she wrapped Season 1 of GoT, when she was 24 years old. During what should have been one of the most exciting times of her career, Clarke describes feeling the exact opposite. "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," she wrote.
Because, literally, she was exposed, in the very first episode — a fact that no one would let her forget. "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?'"
Clarke realized she needed to implement some kind of stress management, so, as she described it, she turned to exercise, enlisting a trainer to help her sweat out her anxieties. It was during a training session in 2011 that she experienced her first brain emergency.
She described the pain, the vomiting, and the fog that overcame her as emergency workers transported her to the hospital and busily worked on a diagnosis. She'd had a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH) after suffering an aneurysm.
That's exactly as bad and scary as it sounds — basically, an artery in her brain burst (that's the aneurysm) and caused bleeding in the space between her brain and its membrane (that's the SAH). That blood takes up space, which either puts pressure directly on the brain or pushes the brain against the skull. Roughly one-third of SAH patients do not survive.
And that's when Clarke had her first brain surgery.
After a month of recovery, during which time she suffered from aphasia — the inability to process and express speech — the actress was back on her game, tackling interviews and preparing to head back to set for Season 2. "The show must go on!" she noted, recalling taking morphine between interviews to deal with the pain.
"On the set, I didn’t miss a beat, but I struggled," she wrote. "Season 2 would be my worst. I didn’t know what Daenerys was doing. If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die."
But she lived. Then, in 2013, after finishing Season 3, Clarke went in for one of her now-routine brain scans. She learned that a second growth (which doctors had noticed during her first surgery those two years prior) had doubled in size, and they wanted to operate.
But as fate would have it, what was meant to be a "relatively simple" brain surgery had failed, immediately leading Clarke into a second procedure — for the first time requiring entrance via her skull, leaving her permanently scarred from her scalp to her ear and with titanium where parts of her skull used to be. "And there was, above all, the constant worry about cognitive or sensory losses," she wrote. "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."
Another month of a much harder recovery left Clarke feeling "like a shell of myself." She now remembers those days as a dark blur, plagued by a constant fear that people would find out about her condition. (National Enquirer actually did publish a small story on her surgery at the time. Clarke denied it.)
Fortunately, slowly and with time, things have gotten much better. "In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes. I am now at a hundred percent," she wrote, adding that she's now dedicated to helping others in recovery from brain injuries and stroke through a charity she's helped develop, SameYou.
She ended her story with a note of thanks to her family, friends, and her doctors and nurses. "There is something gratifying, and beyond lucky, about coming to the end of Thrones," she wrote. "I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next."
Read Clarke's story in full detail and in her own words here.