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Dr. Michael J. Holliday, retired Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist who was one of the foremost experts in acoustic neuromas, dies

Dr. Michael J. Holliday was a founder of the Skull Base Surgery Center.
Dr. Michael J. Holliday was a founder of the Skull Base Surgery Center. (handout)

Dr. Michael J. Holliday, an otolaryngologist who spent more than four decades at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as a member of its surgical faculty and was a founder of the Skull Base Surgery Center at Hopkins, died of Alzheimer’s disease May 17 at Stella Maris Hospice. The Lutherville resident was 77.

“He was a great man and his death is a big loss,” said Dr. Henry Brem, the director of the Johns Hopkins Department of Neurosurgery and a professor of neurosurgery, who began working closely with Dr. Holliday when he came to Hopkins in 1984.

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“As a person, there was something very special about Mike. He took care of his patients’ nervousness and he was the personification of what you’d want a doctor to be,” Dr. Brem said. “As a surgeon, he was a cut above the best, and he had no airs. He came there to do a job and there was never any pretense about Mike. He was the Cal Ripken of surgeons; he was just there to do a job.”

Dr. Donlin M. Long, who had been founder and director of the Johns Hopkins’ Department of Neurosurgery from 1973 to 2000, had been a close friend and colleague of Dr. Holliday’s, attributed much of the success of the Skull Base Surgery Center at Hopkins to him.

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“Mike was a dedicated and caring physician, who always placed his patient’s welfare beyond any personal or political consideration,” Dr. Long wrote in an email to colleagues. “It was a mark of ultimate trust and respect that so many of his patient’s called him Doc. In the rural Midwest of my youth, the most respected physicians of the community were always called Doc by their patients, even if their last name was not Holliday.”

Michael John Holliday, son of Michael “Mikey” Holliday, a businessman, and his wife, Hedwig Ada Turowski Holliday, a homemaker, was born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio.

After graduating in 1961 from Ursuline High School he earned both his bachelor’s degree in 1965 and his medical degree in 1969 from Marquette University in Milwaukee.

After completing an internship in 1970 at Mercy Medical Center, he was drafted into the Army where he served as a flight surgeon during the Vietnam War and attained the rank of captain.

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Dr. Holliday then entered the Johns Hopkins Hospital where he completed a residency in otolaryngology in 1976, and did further work in 1979 while on a fellowship at University Hospital in Zurich.

He then joined the Johns Hopkins University Medical School surgical faculty and continued to work there until retiring in 2013.

It was Dr. Holliday’s groundbreaking work in neurotology, which is a subspecialty of otolaryngology, and better known as head and neck surgery, where he gained an international reputation as one of the foremost experts in acoustic neuromas.

“Acoustic neuromas are tumors of the hearing nerves,” said his wife of 46 years, the former Dr. Maria J. “Maureen” Veling, who practiced family medicine, and met her future husband when she was completing her internship at the old City Hospitals, now Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

“When it came to acoustic neuromas, Mike always thought out of the box but doing what was right for the patient was the most important thing,” Dr. Brem said. “He was a master surgeon and he was so devoted to their welfare and every aspect of their care. He’d do anything for them. And as a general surgeon, he was very thoughtful and knowledgeable, worked hard and loved what he was doing.”

Ear, nose and throat surgery by its very nature is very delicate, Dr. Brem said, when it came to acoustic neuromas and pituitary tumors.

“It is a delicate surgery when it comes to removing a tumor and resulting nerve damage can cause hearing loss, balance issues, blindness or facial paralysis,” he said. “But Mike was very innovative in his approach to acoustic neuromas and pituitary tumors, which gained him an international reputation.

“Mike was a talented surgeon, who did things with ease that many other surgeons considered impossible. I had the good fortune to interact with skull base surgeons from all over the world and to have had an all-star cast from multiple specialties in the Hopkins center. There was nobody better than Mike Holliday,” Dr. Long wrote.

“He made the most difficult surgical challenge look easy, yet he never undertook to do something he knew even he was unlikely to accomplish. His skills were a most important factor in the successful outcomes for the center over many years. He made us all look good. His example was an inspiration for his fellow faculty, residents, students, and postgraduate trainees from all over the world.”

He added: “His example inspired a generation of skull base surgeons. He did it all casually, without any obvious concern for his personal reputation. The outcome for the patient was what was important for him, and our patients knew it. In a constellation of stars and superstars, his surgical skills [shone] especially brightly.”

“He was not a self-promoter and [was] very even-keeled,” his wife said. “He was such a humble man and when it came to his reputation, he’d say, ‘Those who need to know, know.’”

Dr. Holliday was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed spending time at a second home he and his family own on the Eastern Shore that overlooks the Wye River. He also was a fisherman, waterfowl hunter and boater.

“He was a warm friend whose company was a pleasure equally in the duck blind or operating room,” Dr. Long wrote.

Dr. Holliday was a devout Roman Catholic, his wife said, from the days he was an altar boy to his being a longtime communicant of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen where he had been an usher for more than two decades.

Services were private.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three sons, Michael Patrick Holliday of Lutherville, John Michael Holliday of Sparks and Patrick Michael Holliday of Canton; a daughter, Carolyn Mary Holliday of Sparks; two sisters, Franceska Sokol of Dublin, Ohio, and Marian Chomicz of Byron, Illinois; and five grandchildren.

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