The legacy of Oakley Debbs lives on with an afternoon event Wednesday atop Aspen Mountain, and all organizers ask is that attendees wear red.
Oakley was just 11 years old when he had a fatal anaphylactic reaction from nut allergies during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2016 in Maine. The tragedy compelled his parents to launch a mission to draw more attention and awareness to the life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, creating the nonprofit Red Sneakers for Oakley. The color red is a big driver in the outreach; the active and athletic Oakley regularly wore red Puma sneakers when he played sports.
Attendees at Wednesday’s event will gather for a group photo in support of Red Sneakers for Oakley and allergy awareness. Even if people can’t wear red shoes – which Debbs said is understandable if people are in ski or snowboard gear – organizers will provide red bracelets and stickers. Food will be served as well, and donations to the nonprofit are optional. The event starts at 3 pm; the photo shoot is scheduled for 3:30 pm
“The red sneakers are a symbol of awareness and about gathering people together,” said Robert Debbs, who is Oakley’s father, in a telephone interview last week. “We have people wearing red sneakers all over the world and we’re just trying to keep the momentum.”
The Debbs family lives in Florida and has been visiting Aspen for years. Oakley enjoyed skiing Aspen Mountain and went to summer camps in Aspen, his parents said. Oakley last visited Aspen during a ski trip in 2016, the same year he passed away.
From yearly gatherings atop Aspen Mountain to social media users posing selfies of themselves wearing red sneakers, the movement has swelled over the years.
“It’s grown exponentially and we have a very strong reach,” Debbs said.
The nonprofit’s website, http://www.redsneakers.orgis full of information on food allergies, testimonials and the stories of people affected by food allergies.
The Debbs family’s ultimate goal with the nonprofit is to prevent future deaths that can be avoided. Oakley died three days after unknowingly eating some cake that contained either nuts or nut extract.
“The thing is, Oakley was normally very good about checking labels for nuts and peanuts, but when he saw no obvious sign of nuts, he indulged,” said the story about Oakley’s passing on the Red Sneakers website.
After Oakley and his mother detected a nut flavor in the cake, his parents had him take a Benadryl in pill form. He started feeling fine, despite a hive developing on his lip, then went outside and played with his cousins for about an hour. Later that night he began to vomit before falling unconscious in his father’s lap. The family called 911.
“The first responders arrived quickly but Oakley’s blood pressure had dropped… he suffered a heart attack and was not breathing,” the website said. “They did not carry epinephrine. The EMTs arrived 15 minutes later. They administered epinephrine, gave him CPR and used the defibrillators and got his heart beating again. But the time frame between his last breath and getting his heart to beat again was too long. Even though he was breathing, no one knew that he had gone into anaphylactic shock and was brain dead. “
The family kept him on a ventilator for three days and stopped it after a nuclear brain scan showed there were no oxygen cells surviving in his brain.
“It was terrible and nobody should die this way,” Oakley’s father said. Oakley also was survived by a twin sister who doesn’t have allergies, the father said.
Debbs urged people with allergies to carry an EpiPen and not be afraid to use it. The alternate outcome could be much worse, if not fatal, he said.
“People are a little intimated to do it,” Ebbs said. “Our message is, don’t take the chance. You don’t want to take a chance. “
Oakley did not have EpiPen, but the Debbs had no way of knowing he needed one.
“Oakley’s allergy plan was all based on how to respond to Oakley’s asthma attacks, to keep him breathing,” the website said. “Oakley’s doctors never emphasized the importance of using epinephrine. Because of this, the Debbs were ill-prepared to recognize the signs of anaphylaxis, an acute multi-organ life-threatening reaction to allergens. In fact, the first time the Debbs family heard the word ‘anaphylaxis’ was in the emergency room on Oakley’s final night.
In the meantime, the family keeps working to bring more attention to food allergies, their symptoms and treatment.
Red Sneakers for Oakley’s digital outreach hit 10 million people worldwide in May 2021, thanks to the National Day Calendar that year designating May 20 as International Red Sneakers Day.
“Each year on May 20th, International Red Sneakers Day marks a growing movement with a mission to save the lives of those with food allergies while also sharing the story and memory of a boy who loved red sneakers,” according to the National Day Calendar’s website . “Food allergies come in many forms. While one person’s body will have a deadly reaction to nuts, another’s allergy will be shellfish. The common issue is that both are life-threatening conditions. International Red Sneakers Day promotes improved awareness of all food allergies and support for those who have them. “