One little boy died after consuming cake. His sudden death has since served as a reminder to parents everywhere that food allergies are no laughing matter. While some allergies are obvious and cause a reaction immediately, others take time to develop and get worse with every exposure. Mom Merrill Debbs is now coming forward to share her tragic story about her son Oakley who died after eating cake because she wants to save other parents from the horror of watching a food allergy kill their child.
Because Debbs did not know much about food allergies, she never took them that seriously. She’d laugh when people would make fun of someone with a “peanut” allergy on television or scoff when she heard someone ordering the “gluten-free” option at the restaurant.
However, her son was at risk. He suffered from asthma and also had tested positive for a mild peanut and tree nut allergy.
But his life quickly took a turn when he consumed a large slice of pound cake on the day before Thanksgiving. Although Oakley thought the cake was nut-free, it was not. There were walnuts baked into it. Before he knew that he had consumed the potentially dangerous substance, it was too late, and the reaction showed itself. However, it was only a small blister. Oakley swallowed a few Benadryl and went on with his life.
“It went away,” Debbs told TODAY. “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.”
While the blister might have disappeared, Oakley’s pain and suffering only got worse. His mother did not take it as having any connection to the nut allergy.
Oakley came to his mom and said: “my tummy hurts.” Then he started vomiting. Debbs figured he was done reacting since everything he had swallowed must have come back up. She was wrong.
Minutes later, he told his mom, “I’m getting sick again.”
“He started throwing up, and from there it was a tornado of issues,” Debbs said. “We called 911. By the time the ambulance got there — about 10 minutes later— he was blue.”
Within ninety minutes of eating the walnut, Oakley was dead. His airwaves sealed shut, and his heart stopped beating.
Because she wants to make sense of her boy’s senseless death, Debbs launched the Red Sneaker Foundation. It helps educate parents about the seriousness of food allergies.
“I don’t think my beautiful, amazing, talented, adorable son should have passed away,” Debbs said. She is also pushing to ban all nuts from classrooms.
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 spoke to TODAY about the dangerous.
“We do not know enough about delayed reactions like these that seem to get better but then progress rapidly to death,” Gupta said. “That is why it is so critical to know how to identify a reaction and when and how to use epinephrine.”