He Died After Eating a Piece of Cake. Now His Parents Have an Important Message For All of Us


Thanksgiving should be a time of coming together and celebration for families, but for one Florida family, it was a day of unthinkable loss—one that can never be forgotten. The Debbs family lost their 11-year-old son, Oakley, to food allergies after he mistakenly ate a piece of pound cake he thought was safe. Since the tragedy, Oakley’s story has filled the Facebook feeds of moms and dads of kids with food allergies—because his parents are working very hard to get an important message out to allergy parents everywhere.


You see, Oakley died in part because his parents didn’t realize how they should handle the allergy. His dad explained to Allergic Living that Oakley had severe asthma, and to them, THAT was his major health problem—they didn’t think his nut allergy was that severe.

“We have been in the hospital many times for asthma, so the nut [allergy] wasn’t our real issue,” said Robert Debbs. “The focus had been 95 percent on controlling the asthma.”

Instead of injecting Oakley with his epi-pen after he realized he’d been exposed to nuts, his mom gave him Benadryl, thinking that would be enough to stop the attack. But it wasn’t—Oakley just got worse. He began vomiting and had trouble breathing. His mom and dad called 911, but even though EMTs arrived quickly, it was too late for Oakley, Two doses of epinephrine could not save him, and he died four days later in the hospital.

The Debbs now know they should have handled their response to the nut allergy differently, and should have considered it JUST as life-threatening as his asthma. In the midst of their grief, they are working to get a message out to other allergy parents, and ANYONE who loves a person with food allergies. The message is this, which they say they did not know: an epinephrine auto-injector like an EpiPen, rather than antihistamines like Benadryl—is the first line of defense for anaphylaxis. The Debbs DID own an EpiPen, but say they were not aware that this was the case.

To spread their message, the Debbs came up with The Red Sneakers Foundation, named after the shoes Oakley always wore. Their mission is to raise funds for food allergy awareness, and to push for labeling on packages to be larger and clearer.

“If someone wrote, ‘Contains nuts, may kill you,” like cigarettes or something, people would understand it,” Robert Debbs told WMTW TV.

The Debbs say enthusiasm for The Red Sneakers Foundation has grown quickly and that they are already getting messages of support from people around the world.

“This child of mine, he was a rock star,” Oakely’s mom 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.”

Our prayers are definitely with the Debbs family as they mourn the loss of their child. If you want to learn more about or support The Red Sneakers Foundation, check out their Facebook page.

If you know someone with food allergies, please spread awareness and share this story on Facebook!

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Jenny Rapson
Jenny Rapson is a follower of Christ, a wife and mom of three from Ohio and a freelance writer and editor. You can find her at her blog, Mommin' It Up, or follow her on Twitter.