The first aneurysm occurred not long after Season One of Game of Thrones wrapped, while the second happened after Season Three, while Clarke was working on Broadway. Both times, Clarke was forced to undergo surgery, including two procedures that followed the second aneurysm in 2013.
“In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes,” she said. “I am now at a hundred per cent.”
Game of Thrones was Clarke’s first major acting role and in the essay she recalled the nerves that struck after she finished filming Season One. To help relieve stress, Clarke, who was just 24 at the time, began working with a personal trainer. One morning, she arrived at the gym with a bad headache that grew increasingly worse until she was barely conscious. At the hospital, an MRI diagnosed a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a potentially fatal stroke caused by bleeding into the space around the brain.
Clarke underwent a “minimally invasive” surgery – meaning, they didn’t open up her skull – and though the pain afterwards was intense, she made it past a crucial two week mark with minimal complications. But while doing cognitive exercises one night, Clarke struggled to remember her name and discovered that she was suffering from aphasia, a condition that impairs a person’s ability to process language and speak.
“I’d never experienced fear like that — a sense of doom closing in,” Clarke recalled. “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…. 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.”
Though the aphasia ultimately passed, Clarke was told she had a smaller aneurysm on the side of her brain that could either burst at any moment, or stay benign. She told her bosses at Game of Thrones about her condition and even though she soldiered through Season Two, she called it her “worst” on the series. “I didn’t know what Daenerys was doing,” Clarke said. “If I am truly honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die.”
In 2013, Clarke went for a check up and learned that the second growth in her head had doubled in size. She underwent surgery, but the procedure failed, leaving her with a massive bleed that forced doctors to immediately open up her skull and operate again. The second operation was successful, but Clarke said the recovery was long, painful and accompanied by anxiety and panic attacks. At one point, a small item about her surgery ran in the National Enquirer, though Clarke said she denied the report when a journalist asked about it.
As a result of her experience, Clarke helped develop a new charity, SameYou, that provides treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and strokes.
“There is something gratifying, and beyond lucky, about coming to the end of Thrones,” Clarke said. “I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next.”