“Should I eat it?” The split-second decision that changed 19-year-old Sam’s life forever.

Sam Ballard

On a night in 2010, 19-year-old Sam Ballard and his friends were sitting outside, drinking red wine and “trying to act as grown ups”.

When Sam spotted a slug crawling across the patio, he didn’t think twice before saying, “Should I eat it?”

It was a split-second decision that changed Sam’s life forever.

Over the next few days, Sam – a promising football player – began experiencing severe pain in his legs. Doctors originally feared Sam had developed Multiple sclerosis, like his father, but tests came back negative.

Watch: The split-second decision that changed 19-year-old Sam’s life.

While his mother Katie pushed him in a wheelchair towards the water a few days later, Sam declared he had eaten a slug just a few days earlier.

“Could it be that?” he asked.

Sam Ballard with friends
Sam Ballard with his friends. Image via Channel Ten.

Katie responded with, "No-one gets sick from that". But doctors soon discovered Sam had been infected with rat lungworm, which can be carried by slugs and can lead to permanent brain and nerve damage in humans.

Sam fell into a coma, which lasted for 420 days. Eight years later, Sam is paralysed, suffers seizures and cannot control his body temperature. He must be tube-fed and requires 24-hour care.

In an interview with The Project, Sam's friends describe the moment they first saw their mate after he fell ill.

"When I walked in, he was very, very gaunt... and there were cables everywhere. It was a big shock," Michael Sheasby told The Project's Lisa Wilkinson.

Sam Ballard friends Jimmy Michael
Sam's friends Jimmy Galvin (L) and Michael Sheasby. Image via Channel Ten.

"To see in such a quick amount of time how differently someone can look... it's scary. My mate's fighting for his life here," friend Jimmy Galvin added.

Eight years after the incident, Jimmy and Michael visit their friend regularly, and they say he is "still there" despite his physical limitations.

LISTEN: How do you talk to your teens about boozing responsibly? Mother-of-three Jackie Lunn shares how she navigates the tricky topic, on our podcast for parents. Post continues after audio.

"We like to sit down and watch the footy... I try and keep it 'matey' and fun and try and do as many of the same things we used to do," Jimmy said.

"He makes me laugh because we'll crack a beer sometimes and when [his mum] goes out of the room he reaches for it... sometimes we put a little bit of beer on his lips.

"He's in there, 100 per cent."

Jimmy and Sam Ballard
Jimmy said Sam is still "100 per cent" there when he visits. Image via Channel Ten.

But they still do feel responsible for Sam's condition, with Jimmy admitting that he used to apologise to Sam often for "everything that happened".

Since the accident, Katie and his family have battled with the NDIS to maintain Sam's level of car, all the while being attacked by cruel online trolls.

"Horrible, horrible, horrible stuff... [saying] the boys should be the ones paying for Sam to be looked after, how stupid that a kid does something like that and expects everybody to pay for it," Katie said.

But she doesn't blame Sam - or his friends - for what happened.

Katie Ballard
Sam's mum, Katie, doesn't blame Sam or his friends for what happened. Image via Channel Ten.

"Just because you were being mates and doing things together, it's not your fault," Katie said.

"As far as I'm concerned, he didn't do anything wrong... it was just a silly thing."

But Jimmy and Michael say teens - and teenage boys in particular - should always look out for the safety of their mates.

"Just take care of your mates," Jimmy said.

"Before you jump off a roof into a pool, or if you're daring a mate to eat something stupid, just think about it, because it can have the worst consequences.

"Not only on your mate, their family and the rest of your friends, but the rest of your life.

"Just take care of each other."