Gratitude Leads to Endowed Gift

February 22, 2024 by Sara Falligant

Maryland businessman Mike Rommel powers bone biology research to improve spinal surgery

Mike Rommel has always been physically active. Growing up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he played soccer and baseball, as well as competitively speed skating. His love of sports continued into adulthood — he went on to own Skateland roller rinks, along with several other businesses, including nine Denny’s restaurants.

hopkins donor and spine surgery recipient mike rommel
After undergoing two spinal surgeries, Mike Rommel became interested in research in the spinal fusion space. He endowed leadership fund and made a separate current-use gift to support a fellowship in spine research.

But a few years ago, Rommel says his body “just decided to fall apart.”

Rommel underwent his first spinal surgery with Timothy Witham, Med ’94 (MD), a professor in the Johns Hopkins Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Johns Hopkins Neurosurgery Spinal Fusion Laboratory, about three years ago. The surgery was followed by two knee replacements, also at Hopkins. Rommel had his second spine surgery done by Witham in 2023.

“He pretty much reconstructed my cervical spine,” Rommel says. “I’ve got more metal in my body than most people. But I’m still six feet above ground, so I’m happy about that.”

Both sports fans, Rommel and Witham hit it off from the get-go. The naturally curious Rommel developed an interest in Witham’s work outside the operating room. And when Witham lost critical members of his lab to other professional endeavors, Rommel was eager to help, establishing an endowed leadership fund and making a separate current-use gift to support a fellowship in spine research.

hopkins neurosurgeon and spine researcher tim witham
Tim Witham, MD, says Rommel’s philanthropy has been instrumental in funding personnel positions in his lab.

Witham specializes in complex adult spinal surgeries, and his lab studies bone biology as it relates to spinal fusion. Even in the best hands, there are a percentage of cases where the bone doesn’t grow appropriately after spinal surgery, Witham explains. His research is focused on improving that process — encouraging two segments of the spine to grow together through bridging of the bone, usually across a disc space, to treat painful conditions in the spine.

“Mike’s philanthropy has been monumental,” Witham says. “With Mike’s gift, I’m hiring some real scientific juggernauts to get the lab jump started again. It’s going to get us back on track to do some great things to help patients in the future.”

Rommel’s gifts to Neurosurgery are just his latest philanthropic connection to Hopkins. He partnered with the Children’s Cancer Foundation in the ’80s and ’90s to support the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center’s Division of Pediatric Oncology and hosted annual holiday parties at his skating rinks for Hopkins pediatric cancer patients and their families.

He says he inherited his desire to give back to the community from his father, a Baltimore native.

“I’ve always thought very highly of Hopkins; I’ve had such a long history with the institution,” Rommel says. “There are some really gifted and good people in this world, and I don’t see the value of having more than you need. People like Dr. Witham who can take a little bit of money and do a lot with it.”

That admiration goes both ways. Witham says he’s grateful for Rommel and the impact of his giving.

“It’s been revolutionary.”

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Topics: Neurosurgery, Fuel Discovery, Johns Hopkins Medicine