Man who ate slug died in ‘room full of love’
THE family of a young man taken in tragic circumstances has revealed the last moments he spent surrounded by his closest mates.
Sam Ballard, 29, died on Friday, eight years after he was dared to eat a garden slug at a gathering in a friend's backyard.
At Hornsby Hospital, not far from where Sam grew up, friends and family gathered. It's no surprise they were there - they never left his side.
An obituary in Tuesday morning's Sydney Morning Herald read that his "army of friends" were there at the end.
"He had an army of friends and family who loved and cared for him for which he was truly grateful," the obituary read.
His last days were the happiest and he was surrounded by a room full of love."
Sam's last words were reserved for his mum, Katie. The Sunday Project's Lisa Wilkinson, who spoke with the family ahead of the news on Sunday, revealed that Sam told her: "I love you."
As friends make preparations for his funeral, to be held this Thursday, tributes are beginning to flow.
Wilkinson penned her own tribute after meeting Sam earlier in the year. In it, she described him as "remarkable".
She said of all the "superstars" she interviewed in 2018, none touched her the way Sam did.
"As fascinating as it might be meeting such huge names, it has been the everyday people with extraordinary stories to tell who are the heart and soul of our show, and touched all of us," she wrote on Ten Daily.
"None more so than the remarkable Sam Ballard."
She said the group of friends that were there that night were as good as it gets.
"I have rarely met a finer group of young men," Wilkinson wrote.
"They made a mistake, a spur of the moment muck around of unforeseen consequences that should not define them. And their love and support for Sam has never wavered in the years since."
Sam's mates are also filling social media with tributes to the former rugby standout from Barker College who lit up every room he entered.
"He was the life of the party during the North Sydney golden era," one friend wrote.
Others told Jimmy Galvin - Sam's longtime friend and host of the 2010 backyard party that changed so many lives - that he was "a great friend to Sam".
Mr Galvin told Wilkinson earlier this year how the dare came about.
"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," he said.
"The conversation came up, you know. 'Should I eat it?' And off Sam went. Bang. That's how it happened."
He's now helping organise his best mate's funeral.
Sam became ill the day after eating the slug. He complained of serious pain in his legs and told him mum in the emergency room that he was worried it might be the result of what he'd eaten.
She was reassuring, but doctors soon discovered that a rare condition was taking hold of the young man's body.
He had been infected with rat lungworm disease, otherwise known as eosinophilic meningo-encephalitis. The slug Sam ate contained the worm that is usually found in rodents but can spread to molluscs that eat the rat's faeces.
Sam fell into a coma for an agonising 420 days and woke with an acquired brain injury.
For eight years his friends and family - led by his mother Katie - stood by him and helped him. He could not eat for himself and he needed help going to the bathroom.
When his friends visited, they said his face lit up and he was very much "still there".
They'd watch footy like they used to and share a beer, even if that meant just a sip for Sam when Katie left the room.
In 2011, Katie shared a post on Facebook, maintaining hope that her "rough-and-tumble Sam" would recover.
"Physios had Sam standing in the frame at the gym," she wrote. "He spent the afternoon laughing at me as I read him the sports section of the newspaper with new glasses on.
"Told him it was the stress of the last 16 months that had affected my eyesight."
Later, she wrote that "he is still the same cheeky Sam, and laughs a lot" but admitted "it's devastated, changed his life forever, changed my life forever. It's huge. The impact is huge."
Wilkinson wrote that Katie was a "beautiful angel" who was "never wavering in her love" and "always trying to find the lighter moments so she could see her boy smile again".