There is something the parents of an 11-year-old boy who died from an allergic reaction to nuts urgently wants other families to know.

By Melissa Willets
December 01, 2016
oakley debbs
Credit: Red Sneakers Foundation/Facebook

The story of one family's unthinkable loss over the Thanksgiving holiday is all over the Facebook feeds of parents, everywhere, and that is just how the Debbs want it. Because after their son Oakley passed away from a severe food allergy attack, this Florida-based family doesn't want anyone else to make the fatal mistake they did in waiting to get their beloved son urgent help.

According to Allergic Living, 11-year-old Oakley had a tree nut and peanut allergy in addition to asthma. "We have been in the hospital many times for asthma, so the nut [allergy] wasn't our real issue," Oakley's heartbroken dad Robert explained. "The focus had been 95 percent on controlling the asthma."

The family was on vacation in Maine when the unthinkable happened. Oakley, who his dad says was usually very good about reading labels and avoiding nuts, had a piece of pound cake from a holiday gift basket sent to the family, likely because he was hungry after not liking their recent meal out.

"He thought it was just a piece of cake. But when he ate it, he came over and said it might have contained nuts," Debbs told Allergic Living. Oakley's mom Merrill gave him Benadryl, which helped to alleviate the hive that had formed on Oakley's lip, and he seemingly felt fine. But soon their son began complaining of soreness in the left side of his chest. Since he was still "breathing fine," according to his mom, they decided to go to bed.

But then Oakley came into his parents' room and vomited. Fearing he'd thrown up his Benadryl, Merrill administered another dose. But he got sick again, and soon, even though Merrill had set up his asthma nebulizer, he was having trouble breathing. The family called 911.

Even though EMTs arrived quickly, Oakley's blood pressure dropped and, horribly, he suffered a heart attack. Two doses of epinephrine could not save him; he passed away later in the hospital.

Despite their immeasurable pain, the Debbs are sharing their story to warn others. First, they want people to know something they didn't: an epinephrine auto-injector (such as an EpiPen)—not antihistamines like Benadryl—is the first line of defense for anaphylaxis. Even though the family owned an EpiPen, the parents say they were not aware of this fact.

The Debbs also say they were unaware that many allergists now recommend erring on the side of using epinephrine.

In a 2013 interview with Allergic Living, Dr. Robert Wood, the director of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, said there is no single set of recommendations when it comes to epinephrine use for food allergies. "But the general rules are that you need to have epinephrine readily available; that it needs to be given promptly in the event of a reaction; that the longer it’s delayed before being given, the greater chances that it won’t work; and that every patient needs to have an individualized action plan that they’ve worked out with their caretaker," he said.

"This child of mine, he was a rock star," Merrill says. "He was a good, good kid. 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."

Learn more about the Debbs' campaign to spread awareness about allergic reaction treatment and prevention at, inspired by their son's love of red sneakers.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.


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