Thanksgiving is a time when families come together to have a joyous feast together while also enjoying each other’s company. Sadly, for one family, one Thanksgiving took the worst turn imaginable.
Oakley Debbs was an 11 year-old boy whose family headed up to Maine to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Before they left, they ordered a Thanksgiving dinner basket to bring with them that was full of tasty goodies, including pound cake meant for dessert. During their Thanksgiving dinner, the family tossed the pound cake to the side as they focused on making their turkey.
Oakley was asthmatic and had a mild allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. While everyone was busy making the rest of the feast, Oakley snuck into the kitchen to grab a piece of the pound cake. He didn’t see any nuts on the cake, so he thought the cake was safe for him to eat.
Just a few minutes later, Oakley began to suffer from an allergic reaction. When he ran to his mother Merrill to tell her what was happening, she checked the ingredients of the cake and found that walnuts were in the recipe.
Merrill still wasn’t too worried, as Oakley only had one visible hive on his face, so she gave him a Benadryl and sent him off to play.
“It went away,” she said. “Whatever was going on inside of him we had no knowledge of. He seemed fine. He went out to play with his cousins, took a shower and brushed his teeth.”
Later that night, Oakley came to his parents’ room as they were getting ready for bed and said, “I’m getting sick again.”
Before Merrill knew it, Oakley was suffering serious anaphylactic symptoms, and she had no time to do anything but call 911 and pray.
“He started throwing up and from there it was a tornado of issues,” she said. “We called 911. By the time the ambulance got there – about 10 minutes later- he was blue.”
Paramedics gave Oakley two consecutive shots of epinephrine (the main drug in EpiPens), but it was too late. He fought for his life for the next four days before tragically passing away.
Ever since that day, Merrill has painstakingly gone over that day wondering what she could have done differently. She had an EpiPen with her, but Oakley did not seem to be exhibiting symptoms of a serious allergic reaction.
Dr. Ruchi Gupta, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and director of the Food Allergies Outcomes Program at Northwestern, said that experts are mystified by delayed allergic reactions like the one that led to Oakley’s death.
“We do not know enough about delayed reactions like these that seem to get better but then progress rapidly to death,” he said. “That is why it is so critical to know how to identify a reaction and when and how to use epinephrine.”
After the death of their son, the Debbs family released a statement penned from him in Heaven.
“‘Love, love and more love. You are all so beautiful. Thank you, everyone, for being with me, especially during this time. I appreciate how strong you have been for me. No one could have done anything else Wednesday night. No one is to blame. If you think you are… DON’T. Don’t PLEASE!
Thank you for everyone wanting to help me. Having a family so thoughtful and caring who loves to laugh makes me the happiest boy. Support each other with determined hearts. Be there to support or to be held. It is the way to get through this time. I am grateful to be part of this family. I am blessed by the grace of God to be in it…
Be cheerful happy and enthusiastic. Show your courage, be at peace. Love your life and live it. That is the best thing you can do for me.
Look for me in the rainbow I will always be there.’”
The Debbs family has since created a foundation in Oakley’s memory called “Red Sneakers,” which aims to teach people about food allergies. They are hoping that going public with Oakley’s story will encourage schools to put a nationwide nut ban in place.
Find out more about Oakley’s story in the video below.