By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child mistakenly eats something that contains an allergen resulting in his death.
One family’s tragedy has resulted in a widespread effort to make people aware of the dangers of food allergies and how avoidance and treatment of reactions can save lives.
For Robert and Merrill Debbs, the nightmare was all too real. While visiting family in Maine on Thanksgiving weekend, their 11-year-old son Oakley unknowingly ate a pastry that contained nuts, and a delayed reaction of more than two hours resulted in an anaphylactic seizure. Although the local EMT quickly resuscitated him, Oakley was declared brain dead four days later.
“It’s a very challenging situation on so many levels,” said Tyler Debbs Squire, Oakley’s aunt.
A food allergy occurs when the body has a specific and reproducible immune response to certain foods. The body’s immune response can be mild to moderate with hives and swelling, but it can also be severe and life threatening, such as anaphylaxis. Although the immune system normally protects people from germs, in people with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports eight foods or food groups account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.
An estimated 4 to 6 percent of children in the United States are affected by food allergies and the number is growing, according to the CDC.
Oakley, beloved twin brother to Olivia, was a straight-A student, accomplished athlete, played tennis, surfed, and skied. Although only 11 when he died, Oakley was an old soul, “the person everyone would want to be,” said his father, Robert Debbs, a Christian Brothers Academy alumnus.
The Debbs, who live in West Palm Beach, Florida and have close ties to the Two River area, were devastated by the loss of their son, but were determined to raise awareness about food allergies. As a result they created a nonprofit corporation, Red Sneakers for Oakley, redsneakers.org. The Red Sneaker symbolizes the prized pair of red Puma sneakers Oakley often wore. He once told his parents if anything ever happened to him, he wanted the sneakers to go to his best friend.
Creating and maintaining Red Sneakers for Oakley has been a way for Oakley’s family to honor his memory and help prevent future deaths. “They want to make sure this never happens to anyone else,” said Squire, co-founder of the nonprofit. “It’s been an element of comfort.”
The website, as well as the Facebook page, is dedicated to raising awareness of food allergies through educational programs and community outreach.
“In a four-month span we have about 8,000 followers,” said Squire. “We have pictures of people wearing red sneakers from all over the world.”
In addition, it has provided a place for parents and loved ones to share their stories and advice on living with food allergies.
She noted how children with food allergies are sometimes treated and “excommunicated at lunchtime, can’t go to birthday parties and cannot go to sleepovers,” Squire said, unless hosting parents are schooled in how to properly administer an epinephrine auto-injector.
Through the Red Sneakers for Oakley Facebook page, Squire said they learned of another problem affecting children with food allergies – bullying. “We didn’t realize how many people had been suffering,” she said.
She said one mother related the story of how her son was held down on a playground while classmates tried to force peanuts into his mouth.
On the other hand, testimonials from parents who have changed their action plan about how to respond to exposure, have been vocal about rising prices of medication, and are lacing up their red sneakers.
Allergic reactions can have far-reaching effects on children and their families, as well as on the schools or early care programs they attend.
Parents, teachers and administrators in Rumson felt so strongly about the rise and dangers of food allergies, they followed the lead of Fair Haven and other school districts and recently created a Food Allergy Committee, a sub-committee of the Rumson School District Board of Education’s Wellness Committee.
The committee will hold “Food Allergy 101: Why Food Allergies Impact Everyone and How to Keep Children Safe” at 7 p.m. Monday, April 24 at the Forrestdale School cafeteria.
The event will feature a discussion about food allergies, how to recognize signs of an allergic reaction and when and how to use an epinephrine auto-injector. Tina Zecca, D.O., Board Certified, Allergy & Immunology, will be the featured speaker.
“We need to get the word out because I think people are not aware of the fact that something deadly could happen if a patient who has a food allergy eats the wrong food,” said Zecca. She’s concerned that people who don’t realize the severity of food allergies may think parents of children with allergies are being overly cautious. “It’s not a stomachache,” she stressed. “Something terrible could happen. People can die.”
“The April event will be informative to anyone, but we’re really trying to reach people who don’t have kids with allergies,” said Jennifer Olan, co-chair of the committee. She points out people who drive carpools, host play dates, babysit, teach or lead after-school groups should know what to do when faced with a child having a reaction. “They should have a basic knowledge about what you should do.”
Even parents of children with food allergies may learn a thing or two. “Some people have misconceptions,” said Olan, who says two of her three children have food allergies – peanut and tree nut allergies.
She said in the past, she felt parents of kids with allergies “were blowing it out of proportion. Now I realize –it’s not just hives or itching.” The body’s response to allergens could result in a serious and possibly fatal outcome.
“Even people who have kids with allergies may have misconceptions on what to do,” she said. “I thought if there was an incident, I could give Benadryl and see what happened.” Instead, Olan learned that even if there’s a possibility of a child ingesting an allergen, the epinephrine should be administered.
“It was eye-opening for me,” she said.
Olan notes that May is Food Allergy Awareness Month.
“The more people who know,” she said, about how to avoid allergens, how to recognize a reaction and how to respond, “the better. We’ll continue to push for greater awareness.
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