A New Jersey high school principal died Sunday after trying to help save the life of a 14-year-old boy in France he never met, his family has said. Derrick Nelson, the principal of Westfield High School fell into a coma for a month in February after suffering from complications following a procedure to donate bone marrow to the 14-year-old at a Bergen County hospital.
“After the procedure he did, he couldn’t speak and was lying in the bed,” Nelson’s 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.”
“We really don’t know the full story of what happened,” Willie Nelson said. “We were expecting him to come out of the coma he was in. But he didn’t make it.”
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The 44-year-old principal, who also served in the U.S. Army Reserve for more than 20 years, was engaged, and had a 6-year-old daughter, his family said
In an earlier interview in February, he disclosed his intentions to help the boy in France.
“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 Westfield High School student newspaper Hi’s Eye.
The donor program Be the Match had contacted Nelson in October 2018 saying that his blood was a match for the teen in France. The New Jersey selfless principal decided to donate his stem cells through bone marrow, but doctors were against the move because he had developed sleep apnea during his time in the Army Reserve
The New Jersey doctors subsequently planned to do the transplant through intravenous therapy, Nelson told the student newspaper.
“[The doctors] take the blood out of one arm, send that blood to the centrifuge where they separate the plasma from the stem cell, then put the blood back in my arm through the other IV,” he explained.
The principal ultimately did the bone marrow surgery through local anaesthesia after doctors found that he also carried the sickle cell trait. His bone marrow was extracted and sent to France.
According to The New York Post, Nelson’s family, including his parents, fiancee and the couple’s 6-year-old daughter, kept a vigil for him in his room at University Hospital until his death on Sunday.
On Monday, school officials and Mayor Shelley Brindle paid tribute to Nelson.
“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,” Brindle said.
“He was a man of immense character and kindness, and his legacy will live on in the generations of students whose lives he touched.”
His funeral will be held later this week. Meanwhile, an online petition to rename Westfield High School in the memory of Nelson has already gained thousands of signatures as the community prepares to