As teenagers, we’ve all done silly things that we later regret. Games of oneupmanship all too often leave one or more people with egg on their face in the name of entertainment. The chances of one of these incidents ending in tragedy are, thankfully, pretty rare. However, as a recent case from Australia proves, not every dare is as innocent as it might seem.
In 2010, avid rugby player Sam Ballard was enjoying an evening in the company of several of his closest mates. Red wine and conversation were free flowing. At some point, one of the party noticed a small brown slug crawling its way across the decking where the group sat. Someone suggested that Sam should eat it. Without a second’s hesitation, the then 19-year-old grabbed the creature and stuffed it into his mouth. The evening continued as normal, without any more attention paid to the unfortunate cephalopod. The party assumed that was the end of the story.
For Sam, however, what had been nothing more than a passing flight of fancy was about to turn into a nightmare. A few days after eating the slug, Sam began to experience extreme pain in his legs. Increasingly worried, he informed his mother and expressed his concern that it could be related to the slug. She reassured him that “no one gets sick from that”.
Nevertheless, the pain soon became so bad that Sam was forced to head for hospital. Until now, his mother mistakenly believed that the pain may have been an early indicator of multiple sclerosis - a condition from which Sam’s father also suffers. As soon as the family arrived at hospital, however, doctors discovered the horrifying truth behind Sam’s deteriorating condition.
It turned out that Sam had caught a life changing rat-lungworm disease. The rat-lungworm parasite - scientifically known as “angiostrongylus cantonensis” - is ordinarily found in rodents, but can be spread to slugs and snails if they have eaten infected rat or mouse faeces. Unfortunately for Sam, the slug that he had eaten had been carrying this potentially deadly parasite.
The worm’s life cycle means that a rat-lungworm infection can have serious consequences for a human host. The parasite does not actually pass through the human digestive tract as it would in a rodent, meaning that eggs can occasionally get “lost” in our system. Occasionally, they can become lodged in the brain, which in turn causes a rare strain of meningitis known as eosinophilic meningoencephalitis. In many cases, patients will recover from this condition with little long lasting effects. Sam was not so lucky.
Almost immediately after the diagnosis, Sam slipped into a coma which lasted for an astonishing 420 days. When he finally awoke, he found himself paralysed, unable to move without extraordinary effort and dependent upon 24/7 care for survival. Eventually, more than eight years after the original incident took place, Sam Ballard tragically passed away at the age of 28.
It’s an unavoidable fact of life that accidents happen. That Sam and his family had to suffer because of something that should have ended up as a foolish anecdote is heartbreaking in the extreme. Nonetheless, Sam’s story serves as a stern reminder that you may never know when something might do you harm. Hopefully, Sam’s memory can serve as a warning to anyone who might consider doing something similar.