11-year-old Oakley Debbs was on vacation with his family in Maine on Thanksgiving. Despite suffering from asthma and food allergies, the straight-A student from West Palm Beach, Florida, excelled in sports. Oakley chose to consume a piece of cake from the planned assortment of delicacies in his family’s prepared Thanksgiving basket.
The terrible sequence of events that followed led his family and friends to launch a campaign to help spread awareness and stop similar occurrences from happening to others.
Despite having asthma and nut allergies, Oakley enjoyed playing tennis, football and soccer. He also ran marathons. In fighting these illnesses, he was dubbed a “brave and strong warrior” by his family.
On November 24, when they were staying in Maine, Oakley made the decision to eat a slice of the pound cake that had been left out on the kitchen table. Oakley always had to read the labels before he consumed anything, according to his mother Merrill Debbs, and he didn’t notice any symptoms 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.
However, soon after Oakley reported chest issues, he also began throwing up. His parents dialled 911, but he was already blue when the ambulance showed up ten minutes later. Oakley’s heart had stopped pounding and his airways had closed.
The family then had to accept the devastating loss and come to terms with the reason Oakley couldn’t be saved.
“I don’t think my beautiful, amazing, talented, adorable son should have passed away,” said Merrill.
The Red Sneaker Foundation was established by the family to help people recognise the symptoms of anaphylaxis, an abrupt multiorgan reaction to an allergen that can be fatal.
The family chose to utilise Oakley’s beloved red trainers as a potent symbol to promote greater knowledge and awareness among communities of people with food allergies.
Experts advise using epinephrine as soon as any allergic response symptoms, no matter how little they may be.
“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.”
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