Emilia Clarke: The True Superhero of Brain Injury Survivors

As the world prepared for the final season of Game of Thrones, one of the show’s biggest stars, Emilia Clarke, announced that she had suffered two life-threatening brain hemorrhages during the course of filming the long-running series. While Daenerys Targaryen fought epic battles across the Seven Kingdoms, the actress who played her was fighting an epic battle of her own, and now this True Superhero is striving to raise awareness of the surprisingly common and poorly understood consequences of traumatic brain injuries, and provide better care for patients.

Emilia Clarke: The True Superhero of Brain Injury Survivors

It ain’t easy becoming Khaleesi

Emelia was born in 1986 and raised in the leafy English county of Oxfordshire in a childhood that she has described as “idyllic”. Her parents were comfortable but not wealthy and they worked hard to put her and her brother through private schools, often struggling to pay the fees. Amelia has spoken of how she felt like an outsider among the wealthy children of the Oxford elite saying, “I went to posh boarding schools, but I wasn’t the posh girl at the posh boarding schools.” As a consequence, she pushed herself to the limits in order to prove herself, and experienced migraines and other symptoms throughout her school years, even blacking out occasionally. She put this down to overwork and exhaustion, not suspecting that there may be a more serious underlying cause. 

Emilia Clarke: The True Superhero of Brain Injury Survivors

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As the world prepared for the final season of Game of Thrones, one of the show’s biggest stars, Emilia Clarke, announced that she had suffered two life-threatening brain hemorrhages during the course of filming the long-running series. While Daenerys Targaryen fought epic battles across the Seven Kingdoms, the actress who played her was fighting an epic battle of her own, and now this True Superhero is striving to raise awareness of the surprisingly common and poorly understood consequences of traumatic brain injuries, and provide better care for patients.

Emilia Clarke: The True Superhero of Brain Injury Survivors

It ain’t easy becoming Khaleesi

Emelia was born in 1986 and raised in the leafy English county of Oxfordshire in a childhood that she has described as “idyllic”. Her parents were comfortable but not wealthy and they worked hard to put her and her brother through private schools, often struggling to pay the fees. Amelia has spoken of how she felt like an outsider among the wealthy children of the Oxford elite saying, “I went to posh boarding schools, but I wasn’t the posh girl at the posh boarding schools.” As a consequence, she pushed herself to the limits in order to prove herself, and experienced migraines and other symptoms throughout her school years, even blacking out occasionally. She put this down to overwork and exhaustion, not suspecting that there may be a more serious underlying cause. 

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From a very early age, Emilia knew she wanted to be an actor. When she was three years old she watched the musical Show Boat with her parents, and from that point on she was solely focused on realizing her acting ambition. She was also keen to avoid being seen as a “crazy, neurotic actress” and this fuelled her relentless work ethic which saw her overcome many failures on her way to stardom; she was rejected by most of the big English acting schools, and when she auditioned for Game of Thrones she was working in telesales in order to pay the rent. At the time, she had just two professional acting gigs on her résumé, the most notable being a role in Triassic Attack, a made-for-TV movie about rampaging skeletal dinosaurs.

Daenerys in danger

Emilia’s audition for the part of Daenerys Targaryen went very well; the creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss later said: “We knew as soon as we saw her audition video on a three-inch laptop that we had found our girl, so when we went into the casting director's office to meet her, it was more a question of 'please don't be difficult or insane.' Not only was [she] not difficult or insane, she was adorable, grounded, relaxed, and funny." Shooting began on season one of Game of Thrones, and although nobody at the time knew what an enormous, record-breaking hit the show would ultimately prove to be, the cast and crew were delighted with their work and Emilia’s electrifying performance as she began to nurture her draconic brood. She returned home from filming and then disaster struck.

Emilia Clarke: The True Superhero of Brain Injury Survivors
Emilia as Daenerys emerging from fire in Season 1 of GoT

With just two months until the broadcast of the first episode, Emilia was taken seriously ill while training at the gym. She later described how, as she crawled to the bathroom to be sick, she knew that the combination of severe nausea and crippling, shooting pains in her head was a sign of a serious brain injury, and how she was determined not to succumb to this life-threatening situation because of her fear of being seen as ‘crazy and neurotic’. Mercifully, a passer-by heard her distress and managed to get her to the hospital, where - after numerous failed tests were exhausted - a nurse finally suggested that they give her a brain scan, which revealed that she had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. Doctors had been able to curtail the bleeding using non-invasive techniques, but Emilia’s recuperation was difficult; at one stage she developed dysphasia - the inability to comprehend speech or language - for three days. After three weeks she was released, and although she had been lucky to survive - the mortality rate for the subarachnoid hemorrhage that she suffered is 40-50% - scans had revealed a second brain aneurysm that had the potential to trigger another hemorrhage. 

The True Superhero of traumatic brain injury

Emilia returned to work, having brain scans twice a year to monitor the second aneurysm. Two years later she was told that it had doubled in size and that she should have a preventative operation. Unfortunately, this procedure went wrong and a second hemorrhage occurred, an even bigger bleed than the first incident. The doctors had to wake Emilia up in the operating theater to get permission for them to perform invasive surgery, and while they successfully stemmed the bleeding, there were psychological repercussions of this repeated trauma. Clarke has discussed how following the second hemorrhage she was unable to look people in the eye; as she later explained: “That comes from a complete lack of trust in yourself… clinically, your body is telling you that you’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough, that it has failed you… that makes you resistant to connect with any other human being because you don’t even know what’s going on here, it’s completely alienating and entirely frightening and leaves you feeling profoundly alone because no one can see it.” 

Brain damage is permanent, and Emilia has described how a significant part of her brain is “missing” following her two hemorrhages. While the medical care she received ensured her life was no longer in danger, she discovered that there was a vacuum of long-term care and support for patients who were recovering from brain injuries. Her solution was to form a new charity, SameYou, that aims to provide long-term emotional, mental health and cognitive support services, and also to commission research into the often poorly understood ramifications of such injuries.

Emilia Clarke: The True Superhero of Brain Injury Survivors
Emilia as Sarah Connor in 2015's Terminator Genisys

Emilia’s fame has done wonders to raise awareness of a surprisingly widespread issue. It is estimated that one in three people will suffer some form of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the course of their lives, and a great many of these incidents go unreported but can have drastic long-term consequences for those affected. Many of these incidents occur in sport and recreational activities, with an estimated 3.8m sporting-related concussions in the US each year, and while individual concussions are unlikely to cause long-term harm, repeated brain injury can lead to serious issues, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Emilia’s campaigning has done much to bring the public’s attention to these matters, but she has also made waves within the medical community, and SameYou has been particularly active in changing the way the nursing community assists brain injury patients. Meanwhile, her fundraising efforts have also been extremely successful, and have covered everything from charity YouTube streams with online superstar Jacksepticeye, to cosplaying as Jon Snow and pranking New Yorkers in Times Square. The proceeds have enabled SameYou to both fund groundbreaking new research into therapies and recovery programs, and also provide specialist training for brain injury nurses including a Masters degree education program. Finally, one aspect of this work that should not be overlooked is the encouragement and support Emilia’s activism has provided for other brain injury sufferers, who now have a True Superhero championing their cause which, until recently, was rarely discussed and poorly understood. 

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