It was Thanksgiving in Maine when 11-year-old Oakley Debbs was enjoying a vacation with his family. The straight-A student from West Palm Beach Florida was also a star athlete, despite having asthma and food allergies.
His family had ordered a Thanksgiving basket for the occasion and Oakley decided to eat a piece of cake out of the prepared selection of treats.
What happened next was a heartbreaking turn of events and one which prompted his family and friends to start a campaign to help raise awareness and prevent such incidents happening to others.
Oakley loved tennis, football, soccer and was also a marathon runner despite suffering asthma and nut allergies. His family described him as a “brave and strong warrior” in battling these diseases.
On November 24 Oakley decided to enjoy a piece of the pound cake which had been left out on the kitchen table where they were staying in Maine. His mom Merrill Debbs said Oakley always had to check labels before he ate anything and didn’t see any signs of nuts.
“He thought it was just a piece of cake,” said his father, Robert Debbs. “But when he ate it, he come over and said it might have contained nuts.” After his mother tried some, she agreed it had a nut flavor, which was later determined to be walnut.
“Merrill did what we usually do, she gave him Benadryl [pills],” said Robert. “And he came back and said he felt fine.” At that point, his only symptom was a single hive on his lip.
But, shortly after Oakley complained of pains in his chest, then he started vomiting. His parents called 911 but when the ambulance arrived, 10 minutes later, he was blue. Oakley’s airwaves had closed and his heart had stopped beating.
I am writing on behalf of Robert J. Debbs Merrill Debbs and Oakley's twin sister, Olivia. It is with a heavy heart I…
The family then had to come to terms with such a tragic loss and understand why Oakley couldn’t be saved.
“I don’t think my beautiful, amazing, talented, adorable son should have passed away,” said Merrill.
The family started the Red Sneaker Foundation which educates people on recognizing the signs of anaphylaxis, the acute multiorgan life-threatening reaction to allergens.
Oakley loved his red sneakers and the family decided to use them as a powerful symbol for increased education and awareness among communities of people with food allergies.
Even if there are mild allergic reaction symptoms, experts recommend the drug epinephrine be used immediately.
“The child of mine, he was a rock star, he was a good, good kid,” said Merrill. “And always in my heart of hearts, I knew that he would make a difference in his life – I just didn’t know it would be after he passed away. So that’s a big part of my driving force – the legacy of Oakley.”
Please share this story to raise awareness of the dangers of food allergies and how we can help to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.