Why this family is sharing their story of tragic loss to raise awareness about allergies

Oakley Debbs, 11, died from an allergic reaction. His family started an organization to try to raise awareness about severe food allergies. Red Sneakers for Oakley Facebook page

It started with a blister on his lip. Within hours, Oakley Debbs was nauseous, had a tummy ache and was vomiting. Last month, on the eve of Thanksgiving in the U.S., the 11-year-old died in his father’s arms. He unknowingly ate a piece of pound cake that had pieces of roasted walnuts on top.

In the midst of their tragedy, the Debbs family started an organization called Red Sneakers for Oakley to raise awareness about the potentially life-threatening symptoms tied to food allergies that people of all ages deal with. They chose red sneakers because they were Oakley’s favourite shoes.

“This is relevant to everyone because there are millions of people living with food allergies, including children and young adults,” Oakley’s mother, Merrill Debbs told Global News.

“This is the beginning of their lives, this is a young population that deals with this every day until they graduate and they go into the real world and navigate [allergies] at work,” she said.
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Since the Florida-based family started their cause, she said they’ve received hundreds of emails from other parents who lost their kids and even from young adults still grappling with living with food allergies in their new surroundings.

Red Sneakers for Oakley is calling for a handful of initiatives. They want every school and public space to have an Epipen for emergencies, just like defibrillators are placed onsite. They want police officers and paramedics to carry Epipens too, just like they have naloxone on hand to help people who have overdosed.

The foundation would raise awareness through educational programs and research. They’ve teamed up with FARE – Food Allergy Research and Education – for their cause.

Finally, they hope schools, workplaces and public spaces will adopt nut-free environments. It’s incredibly difficult for people to figure out whether food is safe or not, Debbs said.

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A 21-year-old man wrote to the Debbs saying he’s extremely allergic to nuts and has gone into anaphylactic shock four times. He nearly died the fourth time and almost didn’t make it to his 21st birthday.

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“He and his mom went to the Nike store and bought a pair of red sneakers. He said they were both weeping when they read our story,” Debbs said.

Just weeks ago, on Nov. 23, Oakley and his family spent Thanksgiving in Maine with his seven cousins, aunts and uncles.

After a day at the trampoline park, the family got together to watch a movie. Three of the boys grabbed a piece of cake on the kitchen table – it wasn’t purchased by the Debbs, it was a gift basket from a family friend. The cake did not come with a food label.

“We never had a chance to read the ingredients and look at it. The walnuts were roasted so they look like little pieces of chocolate sprinkled on top,” Debbs said.

READ MORE: 5 common food allergies – How much is enough to trigger a reaction?

Her son, who is usually very careful with what he eats, came up to her moments after taking a bite.

Because it was the eve of Thanksgiving, pharmacies were closed in Maine. They relied on Benadryl and Oakley felt better. A blister that appeared on his lip went away.

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Oakley played with his cousins, showered and got ready for bedtime. Hours later, he had a stomach ache, then he felt sick and vomited three times. The 11-year-old went into anaphylactic shock, experienced seizures and went into cardiac arrest.

“Fifteen minutes and it was over,” Debbs said. Three Epipens didn’t work because they need to be administered within 15 minutes of eating the food. At that time, Oakley didn’t feel too sick, though.

READ MORE: What doctors are warning parents about allergies and asthma in kids

The family called 911 as Oakley’s throat closed up. He was rushed to hospital where his family waited three days before taking him off life support.

Debbs said that food companies should be more cognizant in their packaging. If they’re preparing gift baskets, they should ask customers if the receiver has any allergies to be aware of.

“My son never ate nuts. We live in south Florida and never see nuts. As a family we would never purchase [that cake],” she told Global News.
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Oakley leaves behind his family and twin sister, Olivia. The siblings begged their parents for a second dog for Christmas – just days before dying, Oakley picked out the puppy his family will receive on Dec. 25.

Oakley loved sports: He was the fifth grade quarterback, loved soccer, swimming and surging. He loved avocado and artichokes, and his favourite subject was math.

“We’re really upset. Every mother brags their kid is the best but he really was,” Debbs said.

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