Selfless High School Principal Dies After Donating Bone Marrow to Teen He Didn't Know

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A beloved New Jersey principal has lost his life trying to save a teenager he didn't know.

Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson is described by those who knew him as a man of kindness and generosity. And he lived up to those values. When Be the Match, run by the national bone marrow donor program, contacted him in October to tell him he may be a match for someone who needed a donation, Nelson didn't turn away. After testing positive as a match, he agreed to donate his bone marrow to someone he had never even met — a 14-year-old boy in France. 

The process wasn't easy. Nelson was initially going to be put under general anesthesia during the procedure. But because he had sleep apnea, a disorder that causes a person to stop breathing during sleep, being sedated that way would have been extremely dangerous. So doctors suggested drawing blood from Nelson's arms and extracting his stem cells from the blood. But that couldn't be done either, doctors determined, because Nelson carried the trait for a blood disorder called sickle cell anemia.

So the team decided to go back to extracting Nelson's bone marrow, but only putting him under a local anesthesia and monitoring his breathing. After his bone marrow was successfully extracted, it was sent to the boy.

“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 told his school's student newspaper before the procedure.

Nelson's good deed seemed to be going according to plan — until he woke up.

“After the procedure he did, he couldn’t speak and was lying in the bed,” Nelson's 81-year-old father Willie Nelson told NJ.com. “His eyes were open and he realized who we were. But he couldn’t move. He never spoke again.”

The beloved principal fell into a month-long coma and died on Sunday. 

“We really don’t know the full story of what happened,” Willie said. “We were expecting him to come out of the coma he was in. But he didn’t make it.”

After his sudden death, Nelson's community was left mourning the man who modeled family values and strong morality.

“Dr. Derrick Nelson was a gift to Westfield High School. He had a strong moral compass, perhaps strongest moral compass I have ever experienced,” Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan said, according to CBS2.

“He was very easy to talk to and he pushed family values at assemblies or saw you in the hall. Now that he’s gone, it feels like part of the community is gone,” student Daniel Peterson said.

Others remembered him for supporting students at games, plays and concerts and the impact he left on those around him.

"He always tried to inspire students in the classroom and outside to be good people," senior class president Jackson O'Brien said, according to ABC7. "And I think he served as a great role model." 

“He was the type of guy to take the shirt off his back and give it to you,” his father said. “He was very good at everything he did. He gave 100 percent of his life to education.”

Nelson served in the U.S. Army Reserve for more than 20 years, according to NJ.com. School officials said he spent time in the Middle East during his service. He began his education career in 2002 and worked as the assistant principal at two other public schools before joining Westfield.

Dolan said counselors are available this week at the school for students. Nelson's family said a funeral will be held later at St. John’s Baptist Church in Scotch Plains.

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