A high school principal from New Jersey is being remembered for his final act of kindness.
Friends and family of Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson are mourning the death of the beloved educator who slipped into a coma while donating bone marrow to a 14-year-old boy in France. Nelson, 44, underwent the procedure at a hospital in February but was unable to move or speak afterward, relatives told NJ. com.
He remained in that condition until his death on Sunday.
“He was so nice. He always had a huge soft spot for all his students,” sophomore Brynne Burke told PIX 11 News.
Missy McIntyre, whose granddaughter attends Westfield High, also offered kind words about the late principal: “His reputation was, like, he was such a good, caring person.”
Nelson’s mother said her son went into cardiac arrest during the donation process and remained in a coma until he passed away earlier this week. She said doctors have yet to explain what went wrong.
In February, the Westfield High School student paper published a story about the principal’s marrow donation, noting that he had sleep apnea, which made general anesthesia more risky, PIX 11 reported. So doctors instead used a local anesthetic and monitored his breathing while they extracted the bone marrow.
As explained by the National Institutes of Health’s Medline Plus, the surgery is essentially a blood and marrow stem cell transplant that “replaces a person’s abnormal stem cells with healthy ones” from a donor. The collection process can be done several ways: the stem cells can be taken straight from a donor’s pelvis, or a procedure called apheresis, in which a donor’s blood is passed through a machine to extract stem cells from the blood, is used. Blood containing stem cells can also be collected from the placenta or umbilical cord after a baby is born.
Although rare, the NIH warns there are “serious risks” associated with stem cell transplants and that some complications are life-threatening.
Nelson’s donation was rushed to a young teen in France, whom he had never met, via an international bone marrow registry called Be the Match. On its website, the registry notes that there are risks associated with any surgical procedure but says “the majority of donors from the Be The Match Registry feel completely recovered within a few weeks.”
“A small percentage (2.4%) of donors experience a serious complication due to anesthesia or damage to bone, nerve or muscle in their hip region,” it adds. “Serious side effects of anesthesia are rare.”
Nelson’s condition deteriorated shortly after his donation, but his family kept a vigil in his hospital room for weeks hoping he would pull through.
“We really don’t know the full story of what happened,” Nelson’s 81-year-old father, Willie Nelson, told NJ.com. “We were expecting him to come out of the coma he was in. But he didn’t make it.”
Aside from his work in education, Nelson served as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve for more than 20 years and had recently re-enlisted. His military service included an assignment in the Middle East, school officials said.
In a tweet, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called Nelson’s donation “a final act … of selflessness.”
Dr. C. Randal Mills, the CEO of Be the Match, said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of the principal’s passing.
“While privacy and confidentiality requirements prevent us from commenting on this specific case, we can share that donor safety is paramount and complications during the donation process are extremely rare,” Mills said in a statement.
The Nelson’s official cause of death remains unknown.
He is survived by his fiancée, 6-year-old daughter and his parents.
Students held a vigil at Westfield High School on Wednesday and an online petition asking that the school be re-named in honor of the hero principal has already garnered over 14,000 signatures.
Watch more in the video below.