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Aug 1, 2017 1:10 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Quogue Community Remembers Young Victim Of Fatal Allergic Reaction

The Quogue Library held a childhood food allergy awareness event on Saturday in memory of Oakley Debbs of Quogue, who died of anaphylactic shock at 11-years-old. COURTESY OF QUOGUE LIBRARY
Aug 1, 2017 4:40 PM

Oakley Gage Debbs always wore red sneakers.When it was time to go back-to-school shopping last summer, it was not surprising when the 11-year-old part-time Quogue resident dragged his mother, Merrill Debbs, through store after store on California’s famous Santa Monica Pier, near where they were vacationing at the time, to find a new pair of red sneakers.

Oakley’s sneakers had to be red—no exceptions. And by the end of their prolonged shopping trip, Oakley finally settled on a pair of red Nikes, Ms. Debbs recalled this week.

The mother of two said she would have never guessed that those same flashy sneakers would one day become a symbol of food allergy awareness.

But that is what happened in the months immediately following Oakley’s tragic death on November 26, 2016, at age 11, when he suffered a delayed anaphylactic shock after eating a piece of coffee cake at a family party that turned out to contain traces of walnuts, according to his father, Robert Debbs.

“It’s unbelievable that a piece of cake can kill you,” Mr. Debbs said.

He explained that Oakley, who has a twin sister, Olivia, suffered from asthma but had only what doctors diagnosed as a mild tree nut allergy. On that fateful day, while enjoying Thanksgiving break in Vermont, his parents treated what they believed to be a minor allergic reaction with a dose of Benadryl before Oakley went back to playing with his cousins. Oakley was never prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, commonly known as an EpiPen, by his doctor because his nut allergy was considered mild, according to his mother.

It was not until later that day that Oakley, who endured allergic reactions in the past, suffered an anaphylactic seizure and began vomiting. The seizure turned out to be fatal.

The Debbses, who are longtime summer residents of Quogue and live full-time in West Palm Beach, Florida, shared this week that while they were well-informed in how to address their late son’s persistent asthma attacks—Oakley enjoyed running, and playing soccer and flag football while donning his signature red cleats, despite his condition—they were far less educated when it came to detecting the signs of delayed anaphylactic shock.

And that is why they have created a nonprofit, appropriately called Red Sneakers for Oakley, that strives to raise awareness about those warning signs. They can range from a swollen throat, facial swelling, fainting and wheezing, to rapid increases and decreases in heart rate, pale skin, confusion, a sudden feeling of bodily warmth, and dizziness.

In addition to spreading awareness, the organization also sponsors educational programming while pushing for the implementation of new school policies.

On Saturday, the Quogue Library held its first informational event sponsored by the nonprofit, an event that attracted dozens of parents and children, most of whom were sporting red sneakers in Oakley’s memory. In addition to learning about food allergies, the younger attendees enjoyed crafts, listened to a reading of a “Pete The Cat” story, and participated in a bike rodeo.

Their parents bought tickets for a 50/50 raffle, and the grand prize was, fittingly, a red bicycle donated by local The Bike Shop on West Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays.

Afterward, parents and some of the older children listened in as Dr. Hema Dalal, a certified allergist and immunologist, discussed the dangers of children’s allergies before taking questions from the audience.

“She was terrific,” Quogue Library Board President Lynda Confessore said of Dr. Dalal’s question-and-answer session. “I would just say, all in all, I thought it was a wonderful program and something I would hope other libraries or other organizations can replicate.”

She noted that the library would consider offering a similar program again in the future, as there will always be new people joining the community who could benefit from the information about food allergies.

The goal of Saturday’s event, according to the Debbses, is to prevent another child from suffering Oakley’s fate. They said a huge part of their effort is focused on public education because not enough people are aware of seriousness of food allergies, particularly tree nut allergies.

“In the past, to parents, if you said, ‘You can’t bring nuts or peanut butter and jelly [to school],’ parents would take offense,” said Mr. Debbs, a senior vice president and portfolio advisor with Royal Palm Wealth Management Group of Palm Beach, Florida. “But now, when you twist it with the red sneakers—that a child could die, and it’s happened before—parents support it more.”

Mr. Debbs added that his family’s nonprofit is pushing for schools across the country to write new policies designed to better protect children with allergies, namely through the creation of strict rules that restrict the types of foods that can be brought to cafeterias and providing training so school staffers understand how to administer EpiPens.

Ms. Debbs said Saturday’s event was “humbling,” noting that most attendees brandished red sneakers and that her son’s four best friends from the village—Hodde Smith, Felix Vogel, George Fugelsang and Jack Sartorius—all came out to support the effort.

She described Oakley as an “all-American little boy,” noting that he had blond hair, blue eyes and an infectious smile. She also said that he and his twin sister, Olivia, got along very well and frequently joked around with one another. Both attended Quogue School as kindergartners before transferring to a district in Florida.

Today, Olivia still keeps a special pair of her brother’s red sneakers in her bedroom to always remember her beloved sibling, Ms. Debbs said.

“He was a good kid, and it’s just a shame this happened,” Ms. Debbs said. “You would never even know looking at Oakley that something wrong with him. He was perfect.”

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