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Emilia Clarke reveals she had life-threatening aneurysms after season 1 of "Game of Thrones"

Brain aneurysms "can happen at any age"

"Game of Thrones" actress Emilia Clarke has opened up for the first time about her battle to recover from brain aneurysms, which struck just after she finished filming the first season of the HBO series. In an essay for The New Yorker magazine, she revealed she was rushed to the hospital in 2011 after nearly fainting during a workout at the gym. 

"Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room," she 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."

At 24 years old, Clarke was diagnosed with a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a type of stroke that kills one-third of patients. "Brain surgery?" she wrote. "I was in the middle of my very busy life — I had no time for brain surgery." 

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Emilia Clarke, center, with Peter Dinklage and Nathalie Emmanuel in "Game of Thrones." HBO

Until now, Clarke had kept her health struggles private. The 32-year-old said she always considered herself healthy, despite experiencing what she now calls "warning signs" — low blood pressure, low heart rate, migraines and collapsing while in drama school.

Clarke's first surgery lasted three hours and was "minimally invasive," meaning that surgeons did not open up her skull. They threaded a wire through an artery and into her brain to seal off the aneurysm. "When I woke, the pain was unbearable," she wrote. She describes panicking when a nurse asked her her name, which is Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke, and she couldn't remember it.

"I'd never experienced fear like that — a sense of doom closing in," she wrote. "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."

Eventually, she was able to speak and remember her name. She left the hospital one month after being admitted, just weeks before she was scheduled to return to set for "Game of Thrones" Season 2. She went back to work, despite the pain and doctors telling her she had another small aneurysm on the other side of her brain that could "pop" at any time. 

"I told my bosses at 'Thrones' about my condition, but I didn't want it to be a subject of public discussion and dissection," she wrote. "The show must go on!"

She pushed through, but she struggled to keep up with the demands of the show. "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," she wrote. "I sipped on morphine in between interviews."

"If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die," she wrote.

After filming for Season 3 wrapped, Clarke learned that the second aneurysm was growing and she needed another operation. It should have been simpler than her first, but the procedure failed and doctors told her she had little chance of surviving if they didn't immediately operate again — this time, "the old-fashioned way—through my skull."

Clarke said that recovery the second time around was more difficult than the first. "I looked as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced," she wrote. She worried about losing various cognitive and sensory functions, including concentration, memory and peripheral vision. "Now I tell people that what it robbed me of is good taste in men," she wrote. "But, of course, none of this seemed remotely funny at the time." 

She spent another month in the hospital, and struggled with anxiety, panic attacks and hopelessness, convinced she was going to die. But she got through it, and said she is now fully recovered. 

Now, Clarke wants to take control of her story. "Please believe me: I know that I am hardly unique, hardly alone," she wrote. "Countless people have suffered far worse, and with nothing like the care I was so lucky to receive." Clarke now works with a nonprofit called SameYou that aims to help people who have suffered from brain injuries and strokes, and said she is excited to see what comes next after the "Game of Thrones" series finale next month. 

"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."

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