Family of MMIWG advocate asks for prayers as she battles COVID-19 in intensive care

The family of a well-known advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is asking for prayers as she battles COVID-19 in ICU. 

Bernice Catcheway has been 'helping all her life, and this is the time where she needs us,' says son

Family of Bernice Catcheway, pictured here with her husband, Wilfred, are asking for prayers for her full recovery from COVID-19. (Submitted by Willie Starr)

The family of a well-known Manitoba advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is asking for prayers as she battles COVID-19 in an intensive care unit.

Bernice Catcheway, 60, is the mother of Jennifer Catcheway, who disappeared in 2008 at the age of 18. Her parents have spent the past 13 years searching for her and bringing national attention to issues around missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Catcheway was admitted to the ICU at the Grace Hospital in Winnipeg on Wednesday morning. Her son says she's in an induced coma and intubated on a ventilator.

"Keep my mom in your prayers. She really needs us right now. She really needs our help," Willie Starr, 36, said in an interview with CBC.

"My mom's been out in the community helping all her life, and this is the time where she needs us and needs help today."

Catcheway, also a longtime pastor in Portage la Prairie, was admitted to hospital there on Monday, before being transferred to Grace. Starr said she's now on medication to treat pneumonia.

"Right now the main issue is her lungs and it's gonna take a little bit of time for her to recover," he said.

Catcheway and her husband, Wilfred, both tested positive for COVID-19 last Saturday, Starr said, as did their three foster children, who are all under the age of 10. 

Neither of his parents chose to be vaccinated, he said. 

"I took the vaccine — it's just unfortunate that they didn't take it, but I can't speak on my mom's behalf as to why."

'She was just trying to comfort us'

While Wilfred and the children were able to manage their illness at home, Bernice had a hard time breathing and was admitted to hospital. 

Starr says it was tough for him and his siblings — three brothers and three sisters — to see her in so much pain.

"She was just trying to comfort us, really — [saying] not to worry and she's going to pull through this. She said she heard the voice of God telling her to stand up and walk, so she started doing that," he said.

But her situation worsened, he said, and she ultimately chose to be intubated. 

Starr said his father and the children are quarantining at home, and he's been leaving coffee and food for them at the door.

The kids are doing fine and Wilfred, despite two past heart attacks, has been "riding out COVID pretty strong," said Starr.

"He's more worried about my mom, and I've never seen him so hurt and scared," he said. "He loves her … feels for her and wants the best for her, as do we all."

Willie Starr, 36, and his mother, Bernice, in Winnipeg on Sept. 30. She tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 9 and was admitted to hospital two days later. (Submitted by Willie Starr)

He said the foster children had been going to school and Bernice Catcheway attended an MMIWG march in Winnipeg on Oct. 4, but it's "anyone's guess" where the family acquired the virus.

"It's very stressful. Last night we didn't rest at all. We've been up praying for her, weeping, just believing in God, that he has his hand upon her life," said Starr. 

The family can't visit Catcheway due to COVID-19 precautions, which leaves them feeling helpless, Starr said, but they appreciate updates they're getting from hospital staff.

"We're just believing and having our faith that everything's gonna be OK and that she does have the best care."

Never stopped search for daughter

Bernice and Wilfred have never stopped searching for their daughter, since Jennifer was last seen in June 2008 in Grand Rapids, Man. — more than 400 kilometres north of her family's home in Portage la Prairie. RCMP later ruled her case a homicide, but her remains have never been found. 

Starr said his parents were recently in northern Manitoba following up on leads there.

"They're getting tired and they're getting older now. It's getting tough on their bodies, tough on everything … financially, spiritually, all of that," he said. 

"I can't believe how strong they kept it together all these years. And they keep on pushing."

Starr says he feels blessed to have a mother like Catcheway.

"My mom's an angel, a godsend, I'll tell you that. Such a unique person, a loving and caring woman — I feel so fortunate to have somebody like that a part of my life, and be their son."

He said he was especially missing her Wednesday, the day she went into ICU — it was also his birthday, and the first time she hasn't made him a birthday cake. 

"I just hope that everybody will send … positive vibes — send that to her and all the people taking care of her and all those that are sick in hospital as well," said Starr.

"[I] just want everybody to know we appreciate it and we do see the outreach.… We're hurting right now and that really helps us. It really lifts us up."