“If I were a doctor, I would want to be like Dr. Cecil Aird, who works one of the less depressing corners of medicine,” Joaquin Sanders wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in 1990. “Here are the positive things about his practice: He’s a hand surgeon, which means he doesn’t have to root around in anybody’s insides. It also means his patients have practically no chance of dying from what he does to them.”
Those last two observations were mostly true. As a hand surgeon, Aird’s work was that of reconnecting and rebuilding — transferring tendons, reattaching tissue, replacing blood vessels. It was surgery, and insides were involved.
And, no, his patients weren’t dying. But thanks to his work, the lives they lived were better.
Aird, who grew up in Jamaica and opened the Tampa Bay Hand Center, spent his career doing the delicate work of building and rebuilding.
He died June 25 at 78 from a heart attack.
The hand surgeon grew up in Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, with no electricity, no running water and no prospects for education except his own parents’ determination.
Aird spent his childhood hunting birds and cashews. His grandmother taught him to sew buttons on his shirt, an early lesson in a skill he’d later master.
Aird’s parents wanted him to become a doctor, but his secondary school didn’t have a science program. So at 12, he got a scholarship and moved to Montego Bay to study. The doctor at the local public hospital from his hometown, Alfred Carnegie, showed him what was possible, first through his practice and later as a mentor.
Aird studied at the University of West Indies, and Carnegie suggested he continue his education in the United States.
“Several institutions requested photographs,” Aird wrote in a memoir he’d just started working on before his death. “I later realized that race was a major factor in the politics of post-graduate medical training in the U.S.”
He was accepted at Howard University and practiced surgery in Virginia and Jamaica. In 1989, Aird founded the Tampa Bay Hand Center.
“I remember him as someone who was dedicated to his craft and always eager to teach,” said Khader Muqtadir, a former colleague.
For years after, Aird’s work here made headlines:
“Microsurgery works a wonder as a girl’s finger is saved.”
“Microsurgery puts it all together again.”
“Hand surgery brings hope.”
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Soon, he would return home to Jamaica, but it wasn’t to rest.
“Hand it to Dr. Aird,” read a 2015 headline from Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner. “Jamaican returns home and opens first hand institute and surgery center.”
“Western Jamaica is now home to the state-of-the-art Carnegie Hand Institute and Surgery Centre, the first of its kind in the country,” The Gleaner reported in 2015.
For years, Aird worked at the center he named after his mentor, training doctors and performing surgeries.
“He really went back because he wanted to serve his country. He wanted to give back,” said Daniella Aird, one of Aird’s two daughters. “He was a proud Jamaican, and he loved his homeland.”
Aird was detailed in his practice and contemplative and humble in his approach to things, said Adam Carnegie, whose father Aird honored in opening the hand institute in Jamaica.
“In the same way that he could reattach tissue under a microscope, he was very, very acutely aware of and focused on and understanding of how people’s lives were impacted by their injury or his work or both,” said Carnegie, who was also a patient. “It was never just a procedure.”
In that profile of him from 1990, Aird agreed.
“It’s a major catastrophe if our hands don’t function. Socially as well as at work, we need them and take them too much for granted,” he said. “Hands make the world go round.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.