A Florida family is raising awareness of the potentially life-threatening symptoms of food allergies following the sudden death of their 11-year-old son, who lost his life in November after unknowingly ingesting a walnut in a piece of a cake.
The boy’s mother, Merrill Debbs, told Fox 4 Now that her son Oakley had always been cautious to avoid nut exposure at school and home. He led an active lifestyle, excelling in soccer and aspiring to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Eli Manning, to become a quarterback.
"He always checked the labels, he was always aware of nuts in any foods," she told the news station. "And we thought, ‘Wow, we've made it this far.’ Oakley was doing so well. He was quarterback this year in flag football, just like he wanted."
But during a family vacation to Vermont and Maine over the Thanksgiving holiday, Oakley accidentally ate cake containing a walnut after playing outdoors with friends and family.
"He was running through the house, and there was a coffee cake that had been left out on the table,” Debbs told Fox 4 News. “No one had put it away; it was a bit haphazard. The kids just grabbed that as something to eat. And Oakley grabbed it. And he ate it.”
Debbs told Today.com in December that prior to that day, asthma had been the family’s primary concern for Oakley. He had suffered several life-threatening asthma attacks, and he had only tested weakly positive to a peanut and tree nut allergy.
After Oakley ate the nut, a small blister appeared on his lip, but a dose of Benadryl made it disappear. He began throwing up, and next “it was a tornado of issues,” Debbs told Today.
Oakley went into anaphylactic shock, suffering seizures and cardiac arrest an hour and a half after eating the nut. Using an EpiPen three times didn’t help. By the time he got to the hospital, he was nearly brain dead, Debbs told Fox 4 Now.
Oakley died in his father’s arms.
"He's the man that I always wanted to be myself,” Robert Debbs told the news station. “I'm just so heartbroken that he's gone.”
To prevent other families from facing a similar fate, the Debbs family has created the Red Sneakers Foundation in Oakley’s memory.
"In every sport that he ever played, his sneakers always had to be red," Merrill Debbs told the news station.
With the foundation, the family hopes to launch educational programs, help fund research and contribute to forming public policy.
"The rest of my life is going to be filled with this loss, I need to think about this loss, I need to make it positive," Merrill Debbs told Fox 4 News. "I need to channel it into something so that the community will understand what a peanut allergy is."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the United States suffer from food allergies. Ninety percent of serious allergic reactions in the U.S. are due to milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.
Fox 4 Now reported that Oakley leaves behind a twin sister, Olivia. She continues to wear Oakley's red sneakers in his honor.