Ottawa’s Musia Balko and her husband survived COVID-19. Now she’s going public with their story to offer hope to those who will follow in their agonizing footsteps.
Balko, 57, believes she was exposed to the respiratory illness on a flight home from Vancouver via Toronto on March 12. The plane was filled with international passengers. A day earlier, the U.S. had banned European flights.
She came down with symptoms four days later.
I cried because the pain was so bad. I cried because I was alone. I had nobody to hug.– Musia Balko
“It was very rapid. I got all the symptoms … within a five-hour time period. It started with an itch in the throat. Then I started to cough. Then I got a runny nose. Within an hour my voice went gravelly. About an hour and a half into this, I got muscle aches and joint pain. I started to have a fever. I started to get a headache. I had diarrhea. I had everything,” said Balko, who grew up in Winnipeg, Man.
Because she fears having had the illness could limit her career prospects, CBC has agreed to use Balko’s maiden name. Her husband, 59, didn’t want his name used for this story.
Balko called her doctor, who decided she had a presumptive case of COVID-19 and contacted Ottawa Public Health (OPH). At first, Balko said, OPH wasn’t going to test her because she hadn’t travelled internationally.
Balko’s fever rose to 39.1 C and she started taking Tylenol. “The headache was bad. It was both sides of my head, and then it moved to the top of my head.”
The hardest part for Balko was when she was in isolation in her bedroom.
“I cried because the pain was so bad. I cried because I was alone. I had nobody to hug except a big pillow. I was never delirious, but I had a fever for 10 days.”
Then her husband started to show symptoms, too, and he joined her in quarantine. “Once my husband joined me it was better because it was the two of us, and I fought to get us tested,” Balko said.
“We locked ourselves in our bedroom,” Balko said.
“The muscle pains were so bad I was taking hot baths to relieve the pain. It was like every part of you that ever got injured was being hit. I remember at one point my big toe started to hurt really bad, and I’m like, oh my God, that’s the one I broke playing soccer. My rib cage, my fingers, my knees were aching, my hips. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced muscle aches or joint pain that bad.”
Balko described being drenched in sweat, multiple times a night, over six nights. They changed the sheets half a dozen times. “And I’m talking drenching, my hair, everything. And I’m past menopause. Way past.”
On the eighth day, Balko reached an especially low point. She was on the phone with her sister-in-law, who told her she was sounding short of breath. “I thought it was because I was tired, but she said, ‘No, you say two or three words and you stop and take a breath.'”
She called her doctor, who put her on a salbutamol inhaler so she wouldn’t have to go to the hospital. “I was afraid that if I went to emerg, there was a good chance I’d never come out.”
Throughout their three-week ordeal, Balko lost six pounds. Her husband lost 12. “I couldn’t taste or smell anything. Drinking coffee was like drinking hot water. Mashed potatoes was like eating paste.”
Eleven days after their test, on March 31, both Balko and her husband were declared COVID-19 positive.
Throughout it all, their children, ages 17 and 21, were able to stay healthy despite sharing the same house.
In the few days before she got sick, Balco was already self-distancing because of what she was seeing in the news. When Sophie Gregroire-Trudeau was diagnosed, “it started to hit home. This is coming to Canada,” Balko recalled thinking.
They were among those who stocked up before the pandemic hit close to home. They wanted to have two weeks’ worth of provisions.
“Both my husband and I are ex-military. As a military wife, we’re taught to prepare for things such as blackouts, ice storms and floods. So we had gloves. We had Lysol. We did what we could to prepare. We have two freezers at home and we loaded them up with food.
“We’re lucky, our children are older. They already knew how to cook and manage the house. They were preparing all our meals. They were wearing gloves, they had masks.”
Balko and her husband communicated with their kids through their door, or via text. “They would knock on our door and yell, ‘OK, here’s your breakfast, here’s your supper.’ I was so proud of my two kids. They didn’t panic. They didn’t complain. They just did what we asked them to do.”
The family even made some new discoveries, Balko said. “You can freeze eggs. You can crack open eggs, put them into ice cube trays or muffin tins, freeze them, then put them in a plastic bag. When we ran out of (fresh) eggs, our children used frozen eggs and it was just the same.”
You can fight this. You can keep your kids safe.– Musia Balko
Balko said the family tried everything to reduce the risk of transmission. “We had the kids open the windows three times a day for 30 minutes, and I would do the same in our bedroom. They would put on the exhaust fan, and they would run the furnace fan to get [the virus] out of the house. Because that’s what the doctor told us: “‘It’s in the air. Not just droplets, it’s in the air.'”
Their watchword was diligence.
“I told my son, ‘You get the newspaper? You wash your hands. You get the mail? You wash your hands.'”
Having come through the worst, Balko is now reflecting on the experience. “It’s surreal. This is what people must have felt like when they had the influenza of 1918. This is what people must have felt when polio was hitting.
“It is brutal. It is scary. But we got over it.” And that’s why Balko wanted to come forward. “You can fight this. You can keep your kids safe.”