By Kristen Chandler
You may have recently noticed pictures circulating on social media of people sporting red sneakers. But do you know the story behind these pictures? More importantly, do you know about the little boy whose life inspired these pictures and what is now called The Red Sneakers for Oakley Foundation?
Eleven-year-old Oakley Debbs and his family, who reside in West Palm Beach. Florida, went to visit family in Maine for the Thanksgiving holiday. A coffee cake had been left sitting on the counter, and Oakley, his sister and their cousins grabbed some while taking a break from playing. Oakley suffered from asthma and had had several severe attacks in the past, but he had also tested positive for a mild peanut and tree nut allergy. Oakley didn’t know that the cake contained walnuts until he swallowed one.
He had a mild skin reaction, and his mother gave him Benadryl. Oakley seemed fine and continued to play with his sister and cousins. However, a little later he began feeling sick and vomited several times, and eventually his airway closed and his heart stopped beating. This was less than two hours after he had eaten the walnut—something he was mildly allergic to—and he had seemed fine up until the vomiting began. An ambulance took Oakley to the hospital where he later passed away.
While most allergy-induced anaphylactic reactions are immediate, it is not unheard of for someone to have a delayed reaction like Oakley did. Neither is it uncommon for someone to have a life-threatening reaction to something they have only tested mildly allergic to in the past. Oakley’s family did try to avoid peanuts and tree nuts even though his allergy was only considered mild. The family did not administer epinephrine right away because it wasn’t obvious to them in the beginning that he was suffering from anaphylaxis.
In an interview on the Today show, Dr. Ruchi Gupta, who is a pediatrics associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said that delayed reactions like Oakley’s are the reason it is so important for everyone to be able to recognize when someone is having an allergic reaction and when and how to use epinephrine correctly.
Oakley’s mother Merrill Debbs decided that she wanted to turn her little boy’s death into something positive. Using one of his favorite things, red sneakers, Debbs is spreading awareness—to educate as many people as possible on the seriousness of life-threatening food allergies and anaphylaxis. To this end, she has started the Red Sneakers for Oakley Foundation. Red was Oakley’s favorite color, and every pair of shoes that he owned were red. The primary goal of the Red Sneakers Foundation is to educate everyone about asthma, allergies and anaphylaxis to prevent future allergy- and asthma-related deaths due to lack of knowledge.
On the Red Sneakers for Oakley Facebook page, you will see various photos of people, groups and teams wearing red sneakers in memory of Oakley. Debbs hopes that the Red Sneakers for Oakley Foundation will help put Epipens in all schools and to create nut-free classrooms. She also hopes to see the Red Sneakers Foundation create a nationwide Red Sneakers Day in Oakley’s memory.