Sam Ballard and his friends were sitting around a table drinking one night when someone challenged the rugby player to a dare. They wanted the teen to swallow a slug, but when he did, it left him paralyzed.
Ballard comes from Sydney, Australia. In 2010 he was an athletic 19-year-old and passionate rugby player. It was no doubt for these reasons that Sam’s mom Katie believed that the strapping teenager was “invincible.”
However, little did the proud mom know that a little dare would end up changing the course of her son’s life. On one occasion that year, Sam and his friends had been enjoying themselves with a glass of wine. That’s when someone pulled out a slug and dared Sam to eat it.
Explaining what went down, in April 2018 one of Sam’s friends Jimmy Galvin told Australian TV show The Sunday Project, “We were sitting over here having a bit of a red wine appreciation night, trying to act as grown up, and a slug came crawling across here. The conversation came up, should I eat it? Off Sam went. Bang. That’s how it happened.”
With the dare completed, the gang of friends presumably didn’t give a second thought to the slug, which was now being digested by Sam’s body. However, some time later, the teenager became sick and was rushed to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.
It was there that doctors diagnosed Sam with rat lungworm. The worm is carried by rodents. However, snails and slugs can pick up the parasite – which is officially called Angiostrongylus cantonensis – when they consume rat feces.
By eating that slug, Sam had inadvertently consumed the parasite. Often, infected people will develop no symptoms. However, in extremely rare cases, rat lungworm can cause a brain infection. And that’s exactly what happened to Sam.
The teenager contracted eosinophilic meningitis. Many people get over the infection, and at first, Sam seemed to be fighting it. However, his condition later took a turn for the worse and the rugby player fell into a 420-day coma.
And that wasn’t the end of Sam’s ordeal. When the teen finally came round, he was quadriplegic – meaning that he was paralyzed in all four limbs. However, despite his prognosis, Sam’s family were confident that their “rough-and-tumble” boy would pull through.
In a defiant Facebook post from 2011, Katie expressed her hope that her son would learn to walk again. “Sam is doing really well,” she said. “He is still the same cheeky Sam and laughs a lot. He will walk and talk again (thank god) but the time factor is was we don’t know.”
However, in another later statement, Katie was less positive. Discussing the effect his experience had on Sam’s life, she said, “It’s devastated, changed his life forever, changed my life forever. It’s huge. The impact is huge.”
Sam spent three years in hospital before being released. He now relied on a motorized wheelchair, but he also had the support of his friends and family around him. However, some people believed that his buddies were to blame for his ordeal.
Sam’s mom later revealed that her son’s friendship group had been targeted by cruel trolls. Katie told The Sunday Project, “(They’d say things like) The boys should be the ones paying for Sam to be looked after.”
However, Katie was having none of the heartless comments. “How stupid that a kid does something like that and expects everybody to pay for it,” she said. “It’s tough to fathom that there are people that can’t understand there is a very sick kid who has lost everything health-wise. His family has lost him, you know. And all the great times they should have had with him.”
The fact that Katie was so understanding was much appreciated by Sam’s friend Galvin. But while he said that her words were “comforting,” he added that the thoughtless actions of online trolls were “the least of [his] worries.”
For Galvin, his main concern was helping his friend get by with the new hand life had dealt him. “I only care about Sam and his family and what we do in this situation, what we are doing in the future. My feelings are irrelevant, to be honest,” he said.
Most importantly, Galvin had been able to discuss the circumstances around his friend’s diagnosis with Sam himself. “I apologized to Sam about everything that happened that night in the backyard. He just started crying his eyes out,” he revealed.
In the years after Sam’s illness, his friends have witnessed small improvements in the young man, like being able to reach out his hand for a handshake. But for the most part, their relationship is unchanged. They still enjoy watching the rugby together. And every now and then, Galvin and his buddies will sneak Sam a sip of beer.
So while Sam and his friends have slowly learned to live with their new reality, Galvin is eager that other youngsters don’t make the same mistakes they did. And his words of advice were simple. “Just take care of your mates,” he said.
Galvin continued, “Before you jump off a roof into a pool or daring your mate to eat something stupid. It can have the worse consequences not only on your mate and the rest of your friends, the rest of your life. Just take care of each other.”