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High school principal dies after donating potentially life-saving bone marrow to teen he never met

Hope Schreiber
·Writer
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A beloved principal who served in the U.S. Army Reserve for more than 20 years and had recently reenlisted is being mourned by his friends, family and community after a bone-marrow donation resulted in his death.

Derrick Nelson, principal of Westfield High School in New Jersey, fell into a month-long coma after donating potentially life-saving bone marrow to a 14-year-old boy in France. According to his family, he passed away on Sunday.

The Westfield High School student newspaper, Hi’s Eye, reported that Nelson was contacted by Be the Match, the national bone marrow donor program, in October of 2018, which informed him that he might be a match for the teenager in France. After it was confirmed he was a match for the boy, Nelson agreed to donate his stem cells.

Due to his sleep apnea, he was unable to be placed under general anesthesia, so doctors planned to extract the stem cells intravenously. However, it was found that he carried the sickle cell anemia trait, and doctors said they would not be able to do the procedure. Instead, Nelson was placed under local anesthetic while they extracted bone marrow to be sent to France.

At the time, Nelson told student reporters, “If it’s just a little bit of pain for a little bit of time that can give someone years of joy, it’s all worth it.”

Nelson, 44, underwent the procedure in February.

“After the procedure he did, he couldn’t speak and was lying in the bed,” his father, Willie Nelson, told NJ Advance Media. “His eyes were open and he realized who we were. But he couldn’t move. He never spoke again.”

His father, along with his wife Juanita, Nelson’s fiancé, Sheronda, and their 6-year-old daughter desperately hoped he would recover as they sat vigil in his hospital room. “We were expecting him to come out of the coma he was in. But he didn’t make it,” his father told the outlet.

Salm Sivaad, a musician from Atlanta, Georgia, and a friend to Nelson, tweeted, “When I [first] heard of his death, I thought it was somehow connected to his Army service. It wasn’t… It turns out Derrick’s death was no less heroic, and ultimately tragic. My friend died trying to save the life of a child…a total stranger who he’d never met from a foreign land.”

Mayor of Westfield, Shelley Brindle, shared on Facebook, “This is a tremendous loss for our community, and I know that our children, and we as parents, will struggle with coming to terms with this over the coming days and weeks. He was a man of immense character and kindness, and his legacy will live on in the generations of students whose lives he touched.”

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These 7 years working with Derrick have been the best of my 23 years of teaching. Compassionate man full of character with a contagious sense of humor. Always willing to listen, give advise and help. I will miss you always… you have left an emptiness at WHS,” a peer, Maria Garcia-Fonseca, shared.

“I always knew that he was a great man. He was the type of man that used authority but was still such an approachable man. I can’t name a single person that didn’t like him,” Marcela Avans, a junior at Westfield High School said. “When I found out that he was first ill, it broke my heart because he was helping someone, but it really made me respect him and appreciate his service to the community even more.”

The Be the Match registry is vital to saving lives, and all donors must pass a prescreening to ensure they are healthy enough for the procedure safest for them. Finding a match is crucial, and rare, for cancer patients, as about only 1 in 430 U.S. Be the Match Registry members go on to donate bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells.

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