A cancer patient in the palliative care ward at Trail’s Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital has taken on a project he hopes will provide spiritual and emotional solace for patients, their families, and hospital staff.
Aaron Banfield, 40, is leading the revitalization of a chapel in the hospital that has been in disuse following extensive renovations to the building over the past couple of years.
He wants to transform the room into a sacred space for all spiritual paths, and has been working with hospital leadership to plan and design it. The room already contains a large secular stained glass window.
Banfield is on life support because of advanced metastasized colorectal cancer. His doctors don’t know how long he will live, but they have given up trying to stave off the cancer, which has destroyed his digestive system. He is being kept alive by intravenous nutrition.
“I’d be long gone if I was not hooked up,” he says. “Death is standing waiting for me.”
The mission statement for the sacred space, written by Banfield and adopted by the hospital, states that the design of the room will produce “peace of mind and heart, where all beliefs and practices feel welcome, and which functions as a well-resourced facility for activities that contribute to the spiritual well-being of the hospital community.”
He wants the space to be used for prayer, yoga, meditation or any other spiritual practice that will promote psychological and emotional wellbeing. He hopes to supply the room with such things as holy books and artifacts from different religions, and he wants the hospital to ask various faith groups in the West Kootenay what they would like to see there.
Ruth Kohut, clinical operations director at the hospital, sees the sacred space is an invitation not only for patients and families but also for hospital staff.
“This is a gift,” she said. “Aaron is sharing a gift of his creativity and his insight and his vision to our hospital and to the community. He’s a remarkable individual … I’ve been very grateful and honoured to meet Aaron and to be involved with him on this project. And I will endeavour to meet that vision.”
Banfield grew up in Nelson, then moved to the Lower Mainland to study and practise acupuncture, before several years ago moving to his current home in Rossland. He was diagnosed with cancer three years ago after having suffering from Crohn’s disease since childhood. In June his doctors told him there was nothing more they could do to stop the cancer,
He responded to this news by “walking off the battlefield,” he says. He stopped fighting cancer and started celebrating life instead. He wholeheartedly accepted his death, and says he is now living in “a state of great joy and aliveness, as well as peacefulness and acceptance.”
He says he wants to die with “as much aliveness as possible.”
Banfield appears relatively healthy, although he says he has limited energy. Even though he is on life support for about 16 hours each day, he is not bedridden. His calendar is full. He goes for walks near the hospital, visits his home in Rossland, spends time with friends in person and online, talks with the hospital staff, and plans the sacred space. He has organized two large gatherings of friends at which his death was an open discussion.
He spends much of his time these days with his mother, Judy Banfield of Nelson, and his sister, Elena Banfield of Vancouver. They are a closely bonded trio of mutual support, he says.
Banfield is an experienced practitioner of yoga and qigong (a centuries-old mindful movement practice developed in China) and he says these practices have helped him handle his illness on both physical and psychological levels. His response to his illness has been a mix of Eastern and Western approaches, he says.
“I will be forever grateful for Western medicine,” Banfield says. “It has saved my life many times now. Everything has its place.”
Judy sees her son as a walking embodiment of what he hopes the sacred space will bring to others.
“I have just watched him get more and more at peace with what was happening,” she says. “And really wanting to live whatever days he has left fully, to embrace being alive, to embrace the people in his life. I am astounded by this.”
She says her son’s presence is uplifting to her and to others.
“I know the nurses love hanging out in the room,” she says. “He has really deep conversations with everybody. He just dives in and feels totally comfortable with it. And I mean, he has his moments when he breaks down too, you know. We cry a lot together.”
Banfield says the sacred space is needed because hospitals are efficiently designed utilitarian environments that are “mechanistic, uniform and empty of beauty.”
He says our experience of a physical space affects our minds and emotions, which in turn influence our physical health.
“In my experience, long hospital stays can sap a person’s morale simply from the bleak uniformity of the space.”
So he wants to create a space that is “beautiful, unique and alive” for patients, their families and hospital staff.
Banfield and the KBRH Foundation are looking for donations for the new space. They have identified a need for specific kinds of furniture, plants, lighting, projector, sound system, art, and cabinets. Anyone wishing for more detail or to donate should call 250-364-3424.