He was a son, a brother, a teammate, a friend. Now, they wear red, his favorite color, in his honor. Red to educate others so that it might not happen to them.
A straight-A student from West Palm Beach, Florida, Oakley was a star athlete, despite having asthma and allergies.
He loved tennis, football, and soccer. He was also a marathon runner. He and his family were vacationing in Maine over Thanksgiving. Relatives had ordered a Thanksgiving gift basket with a ham. The basket also contained a pound cake for dessert.
It happened the evening of Nov. 24. “We didn’t even see the cake; it had just been opened up and set on the island of the kitchen,” said Merrill Debbs, Oakley’s mother. Her son, who was allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, was usually good about checking labels but didn’t see any apparent signs of nuts and ate a slice.
“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 that would soon change.
While getting ready for bed shortly after, Oakley started to experience chest pain but was still breathing fine. Fifteen minutes later, Oakley was knocking on his parent’s bedroom door and suddenly vomited.
His mother assumed whatever was bothering him came up and he’d be fine. Oakley even admitted to feeling better. But shortly after, he started getting sick again.
“He started throwing up and from there it was a tornado of issues,” said Merrill. “We called 911. By the time the ambulance got there – about 10 minutes later – he was blue.” An hour and half after consuming the piece of cake, his airwaves had closed and his heart had stopped.
His family had an emergency action plan they’d made with their allergist for dealing with Oakley’s asthma and seasonal allergies. But the doctors never told them one was needed for his food allergies.
Until that point, they’d been told his peanut and tree nut allergies were “mild” and had always just been treated with antihistamines. They owned an EpiPen, but had never been properly educated on the signs and symptoms of when to use it.
When the EMTs arrived, Oakley was lifeless in his father’s arms. They gave him two successive doses of epinephrine, but it was too late. Oakley was officially pronounced dead four days later in the hospital.
“I wasn’t aware, no one told me,” said Merrill. She says they weren’t aware epinephrine was the only first-line drug for anaphylaxis, not antihistamines. The family is quickly learning they aren’t the only ones.
“I don’t think my beautiful, amazing, talented, adorable son should have passed away,” said Merrill. The family has started the Red Sneaker Foundation to turn tragedy into something positive and help educate others. People throughout their community are wearing red sneakers, cleats, and hair ribbons to show support for their friend and teammate, Oakley Debbs.
Even if there are mild symptoms, experts recommend epinephrine be used immediately. Food Allergy Research & Education offers a free printable Emergency Care Plan you can download and print to review with your doctor, that outlines the signs and symptoms and what to do in case of an allergic reaction.
The family has planned a “Celebration of Life” soccer game on Dec. 10 in their son’s honor. Players and attendees will be wearing white and red on game day.
“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.”