Lisa Wilkinson: Among All The Huge Names It's Sam Ballard I'll Remember Most

There have been plenty of column inches written over recent months about the many exclusive superstar interviews we’ve worked hard to secure for our Sunday Project viewers this year.

David Beckham, Bradley Cooper, Jon Bon Jovi, Celine Dion, Amy Schumer, The Eagles, Sally Field, the list goes on.

The Project is a longtime loved and trusted show -- both by audiences and the guests themselves -- so to be able to sit down, find out what makes these stars tick (as opposed to the tabloid headlines they so often feature in) has been an eye-opener.... and yes, I admit, juuuuust a little fun.

But 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.

None more so than the remarkable Sam Ballard.

Sam Ballard. Image: Facebook.

In 2010, Sam was your average Sydney young man. Fresh out of school, no doubt breaking hearts, possessed of a wide circle of friends, many of whom he’d known since kindergarten, a loving family.... and the world just starting to open up to him.

Until one night in his best mate Jimmy’s backyard, Sam and his mates decided (as boys at that age so often do) to spice things up a bit with a dare. See that slug crawling across the garden path? Who’s game to eat it?

Sam was.

He quickly became unwell, and it wasn’t until Sam was later in Emergency that he wondered out loud to his mum Katie if eating a garden slug could be linked to the weakness, dizziness, pain in his legs, and violent vomiting he was experiencing.

Sam's Ballard's Heartbreaking Battle

Doctors soon realised that Sam had been infected with rat lungworm disease, courtesy of a parasite often found in slugs and snails when they eat rat faeces. Sam’s body was shutting down and he was going downhill quickly.

A coma lasting 420 agonising days ensued and when he woke he was diagnosed with an acquired brain injury.

Sam was 19, and in a single night, his life had changed forever. While doctors had managed to save him in time, he was now confined to a wheelchair, with limited communication skills, and needing 24 hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week care.

And for almost nine years, Sam’s beautiful angel of a mum Katie has been right by Sam’s side as his chief carer, never wavering in her love; feeding him, wheeling him, driving him, getting him bathed and toileted, organising doctor and hospital visits, always trying to find the lighter moments so she could see her boy smile again, waking at every sound in the night, always making sure Sam’s friends felt welcomed in his new, limited world. When they visited, as they did often, Sam’s eyes would always light up. And Katie was always, always optimistic for what the future held for him.

Sam passed away on Friday morning at Hornsby Hospital, not far from where he grew up, surrounded by 20 of those he most loved in the world.

Katie tells me “the room was so full of love”.

One of his friends there in the room continued, “He had his voice and he said ‘I love you' several times to Katie.”

Sam was just 29.

Sam Ballard. Image: Facebook.

As to Sam’s friends who were there on that fateful night in 2010, they are doing it tough. But allow me to say I have rarely met a finer group of young men. 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.

To Katie, we can only begin to imagine the pain you are going through. But your love and care for Sam will long stand as a testament to the power of parental love.

Rest in sweet peace, Sam.