By Sean Chaffin
A full house losing to a bigger rivered full house for your tournament life. It’s a crushing scenario that might leave most poker players cursing their bad luck. This hand was Michael Graydon’s fate early on Day 1 in only the second hand of the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic. It was a quick exit from the tournament and certainly not what he wanted. But for Graydon, a tournament exit is just a bump in the road. He’s dealt with much worse over the last few years.
Poker fans may have heard of Graydon’s story in recent weeks. The 40-year-old recreational poker player from Birmingham, Alabama, has battled a brain tumor this year with not the greatest of a prognosis. Thanks to the World Poker Tour, Graydon was among the field on Day 1 at the Five Diamond. Despite his six-minute exit from the tournament, Graydon enjoyed the entire experience as a guest of the WPT. Along with playing the tournament, he met Daniel Negreanu and engaged in some strategy talk with LearnWPT instructor Andrew Lichtenberger.
“It’s been unbelievable,” he says. “Ever since I got here, there’s been so much hospitality and everyone making me feel special.”
Facing Tough Times
Graydon’s medical ordeal began in March when began experiencing a spasm in his neck that always seemed to make his voice hoarse. His doctor eventually discovered he had a paralyzed vocal cord.
“He said the only reason I’d have that is either an infection on my spine or something in my brain pressing on a nerve,” he says.
An MRI and a spinal tap followed and doctors discovered a tumor on his brain stem. Because of the location, an operation isn’t possible. Any procedure could potentially paralyze Graydon so instead doctors are left to monitor any potential growth. The area of the cancer is responsible for some crucial bodily functions.
“It’s the part of the brain that controls breathing and heart rate,” he says. “It’s covering two-thirds of it right now. Since they couldn’t do a biopsy, they put it in front of what’s called a tumor board.”
That means 25 top oncologists reviewed his case and all agreed that he had a glioma, a tumor that can appear in that part of the brain and can cause headaches, nausea, speech or balance abnormalities, weakness or numbness of the arms or legs, double vision, and more.
Because the tumor is inoperable, doctors can only monitor for any potential growth. After being diagnosed, 36 chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed and he now gets scanned every three months.
“As of now, the plan is just hoping that it doesn’t grow and then I just get to live my life normally,” he says. “My doctor says for the not-so-lucky people it grows faster and they make it a year or two. He said on an average, [most people] make it four or five years. He said he’s seen it where people are extremely blessed and they live 10 years or more.
“I’m just believing that every time I go in that it’s gone or hasn’t grown any. Because if it grows even just a little, it can press even more [on his brain stem]. Right now I have a few complications but it’s not causing any major problems.”
The longer bad news stays away, there’s always a hope medicine can catch up and make for a possible treatment. Doctors hope at some point, tumors like his that were inoperable can be cured with new procedures and technology.
Beyond his own medical condition, Graydon has also dealt with another major concern in the last few years. Married with two children, his 6-year-old daughter Wryn was diagnosed with congenital nephrotic syndrome as a baby. The disease causes irreversible kidney failure by early childhood. At one point Wryn quit breathing in the hospital as she was in Graydon’s arms, and doctors had to revive her.
Progress at recovery was slow and Wryn lost both her kidneys, which were toxic to her body. She needed dialysis to continue living and eventually was at least able to go home. Caring for her was still a major ordeal for the family. She still needed dialysis 14 hours each day for two years. Luckily at age 2, a kidney donation offered a chance at a better life. Wryn’s doing better now. She still requires an occasional hospital visit, but the majority of her life is somewhat normal.
“My mom gave her one of her kidneys,” he says. “She was 62 years old when she did it, but the doctor said hers looked like it came from a 20 year old and she was a perfect match.”
Financial Struggles, Help from the Community
With so many medical procedures, getting by for the Graydons wasn’t easy. He owned a car dealership but had to close it while dealing with Wryn’s procedures. The family basically lived at the hospital while she received treatment. His wife Haley at least was able to work and to bring in more income, Graydon began a landscaping business when he began to feel better. His own medical situation then made working difficult as well.
“I couldn’t even hardly get out of bed for several months from just the physical part of it, so I had to let about 80 percent of my business go,” he says. “Right now is the slow time so I don’t really do much at all during the winter.”
Luckily Haley had good insurance at her job, which has been a blessing for the family. But bills and other expenditures can still mount up
“As far as financially, it’s definitely the worst I’ve ever been,” he says. “But the Lord always provides.”
Those around them also pitched in. A group of supporters put on a golf tournament in Birmingham and raised about $30,000 to help with medical bills. The family also put some of that aside in case Graydon needs to go to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the top treatment centers in the country, at some point for treatment. Another donor in Birmingham donated a new car to the family when Graydon’s 2007 truck reached more than 300,000 miles.
“Just little things like that, everybody coming together, it meant so much,” he says. “I’ve had some many people pitch in. It’s been awesome.”
‘Bama Booster, Poker Player
As the family battled Graydon’s and Wryn’s medical dilemmas, any chance to get his mind off some of these issues even for a short time meant so much. A longtime fan of the University of Alabama, Graydon is hoping the Crimson Tide find more success in the NCAA football playoffs than he found in the Five Diamond. Growing up both his father and grandfather had season tickets.
Watching games offered some respite from day-to-day concerns. He’s looking forward to the upcoming playoff game and feels pretty good about the team’s chances, but maybe not as confident as in seasons past.
“I’ve been going to the games ever since I was little,” he says. “I love it. I don’t know the chances of beating Georgia twice. I’m not sure but we looked really good last time. I’m not sure Cincinnati can hang with any of those three teams in it, but we’re about to find out.”
As a longtime poker player and fan, some action at the felt also allows Graydon a bit of normalcy. Before the World Series of Poker Main Event, he Tweeted that he would like to play in the Main Event and hoped to sell 70 percent of his action.
After hearing his story, Ryan Reiss retweeted his post and the story went viral. Poker pros MJ Gonzales and Jonathan Depa then stepped up, not staking Graydon but instead splitting his entire buy-in.
“It didn’t go well on the felt, just like this one didn’t,” he said after Day 2 at Bellagio. “But the experience and getting to meet all these people was unbelievable. It’s been really fun and definitely takes my mind off all the problems we’ve got going on back home.”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer based in New Mexico and Texas. His work appears in numerous websites and publications. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions.