Emilia Clarke Writes About Fearing Death After Having Two Brain Aneurysms
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In an essay published Thursday on The New Yorker, actress Emilia Clarke revealed for the first time that she’s experienced two brain aneurysms. The “Game of Thrones” star described the physical challenges she faced, and delved into the dark thoughts and emotions she dealt with while facing a life-threatening health crisis.
The first aneurysm occurred after Clarke had finished filming the first season of “Game of Thrones,” the HBO series in which she plays Daenerys Targaryen, the “Mother of Dragons.” Clarke was working out with a trainer in Feb. 2011 when she developed a headache and became “violently, voluminously ill.” After collapsing next to a toilet, Clarke was taken by ambulance to a hospital where it was discovered she had a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke caused by bleeding into the space around the brain.
Clarke underwent a three-hour operation called endovascular coiling, in which a surgeon introduced a wire into a femoral artery in Clarke’s groin. The wire traveled north until it reached her brain, where the surgeon was able to seal off the aneurysm and stop the bleeding.
“When I woke, the pain was unbearable,” Clarke wrote. “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.”
Four days later, Clarke was moved to the ICU. She was told her chances of a good recovery were high if she made it two weeks with minimal complications – which she did. However, Clarke ran into a cognitive issue after the two-week mark had passed. She wrote:
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.
I was suffering from a condition called aphasia, a consequence of the trauma my brain had suffered. Even as I was muttering nonsense, my mum did me the great kindness of ignoring it and trying to convince me that I was perfectly lucid. But I knew I was faltering. 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.
Aphasia is a communication disorder that impairs a person’s ability to process language – including speaking and understanding others. Losing abilities due to an injury or illness can be devastating, and have a profound effect on a person’s mental and emotional health. Many people may grieve the life or identity they had before their health complications arose, and this can sometimes lead to depression or suicidal thoughts.
For Clarke, the frightening symptoms of aphasia she was experiencing passed after a week. She recognized, however, that for many others, including those around her in the ICU, this doesn’t always happen. “I was continually reminded of just how fortunate I was,” she wrote.
She was eventually released from the hospital and returned to her life, where she was soon to begin filming the second season of “Game of Thrones.” But doctors had discovered another smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain; though it didn’t necessitate immediate surgery, they planned to keep a close eye on it in case it was to “pop.”
Clarke struggled with her recovery as she began filming, keeping her condition private except for her bosses at “Thrones.” She dealt with immense pain, sipping on morphine in between interviews, and debilitating fatigue, often feeling so weak she thought she was going to die.
“On the set, I didn’t miss a beat, but I struggled,” she wrote. “If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die.”
In 2013, Clarke went in for a routine brain scan, only to discover that the growth on her brain had doubled in size. Doctors told her it should be taken care of immediately, with the same type of surgery she had undergone two years earlier.
This time, the operation failed, resulting in a massive bleed to Clarke’s brain. She had to have another urgent surgery, this time with doctors accessing her brain directly through her skull.
Clarke emerged from the surgery with a drain coming out of her head, titanium in her skull and a scar from her ear to her scalp, but what she feared most were the lasting effects of the surgery, and if she would once again experience cognitive or sensory impairment.
“At certain points, I lost all hope,” Clarke explained, adding:
I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks. I was raised never to say, ‘It’s not fair’; I was taught to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you. But, going through this experience for the second time, all hope receded. I felt like a shell of myself. So much so that I now have a hard time remembering those dark days in much detail. My mind has blocked them out. But I do remember being convinced that I wasn’t going to live.
Despite the fear and loss of hope Clarke struggled with, she has healed “beyond [her] most unreasonable hopes” and is now back to feeling 100 percent.
“I know that I am hardly unique, hardly alone. Countless people have suffered far worse, and with nothing like the care I was so lucky to receive,” she wrote. To help others who are facing similar challenges, Clarke developed a charity called SameYou in conjunction with partners in the U.S. and the U.K. She said the organization aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.
If you are struggling with similar “dark thoughts” due to an illness or injury, know you are not alone. Below are several stories from our Mighty community about coping with the challenges of grief, loss of identity and depression in the face of a health crisis.
- How to Move Forward When You’re Grieving Your Life Before Chronic Illness
- You’re Allowed to Mourn If Your Life Has Been Undone by Illness
- 7 Ways I Cope With My Loss of Identity After a Chronic Illness Diagnosis
- How I Manage the Fear and Uncertainty of Living With Chronic Illness
- 39 Reasons to Keep Living When Chronic Illness Makes You Feel Hopeless
Lead photo via Emilia Clarke’s Instagram