A principal from Westfield High School in New Jersey will be remembered as a hero.
At 44-years old, Dr. Derrick Nelson announced that he had the opportunity to save a strangers life, a 14-year old boy in France.
His final act of kindness depicted the selfless legacy of Dr. Nelson.
In October 2018, Be the Match contacted Nelson with news that he was a match in their National Bone Marrow Donor Program, and that he would be able to donate his stem-cells, to save the French boy.
Despite the setbacks, potential pain, and risk that would be associated with the procedure, Nelson told the WHS school paper, “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.”.
This transplant procedure is typically performed with a general anesthetic, meaning the donor is unconscious for the procedure. While lying on the stomach, small incisions are made to withdraw liquid marrow from both sides of the back and pelvic bone, using hollow needles. While the procedure itself is painless, and most donors return home within the same day or the next morning, there are often symptoms such as back or hip pain, fatigue, muscle pain, headaches and bruising that will occur after the procedure .
Before Nelson began his teaching career, leading up to his role as the principal of WHS, he served 20-years in the U.S. Army Reserve. As a result of his military days, Nelson developed sleep apnea. This sleep disorder occurs when breathing repeatedly stops during sleep.
When the planning for this extraction procedure began, the initial plan was for Nelson to donate his stem cells through bone marrow. This course would allow for the maximum amount of stem cells to be extracted. However, due to his sleep apnea, using general anesthesia would be extremely dangerous for Nelson, so the doctors explored an alternate route.
Intravenous therapy was deemed as safer. It would be performed by utilizing two IV’s, one in each arm. Blood would be drawn from one arm into a centrifuge, where the plasma would be separated from the stem cell, then the plasma would flow back in through his other arm, and the stem cells would be donated.
However, on January 21st, 2019, Nelson’s physical exam showed that he had sickle cell trait. While he was not anemic, since he did have this trait, this method of donation could not be performed.
On a final trip back to the drawing board, the plan was finally set. On Monday, February 18th, 2019, Nelson was put under a local anesthetic, in order to keep a steady watch on his breathing, while the doctors performed the extraction.
However sometime during the extraction, Nelson went into cardiac arrest. Nancy Radwin, a spokeswoman for Hackensack Meridian Health, said she couldn’t comment on the cause of death or whether any bone marrow was successfully extracted.
His 81-year-old father Willie Nelson said in an interview with NJ Advance Media that “after the procedure, he couldn’t speak and was lying in the bed. His eyes were open and he realized who we were. But he couldn’t move. He never spoke again.”
Bone-marrow donation is considered to be a low-risk procedure. About 2.4% of donors experience a serious complication due to anesthesia or damage to bone, nerve, or muscle in their hip region, according to the National Marrow Donor Program.
We don’t know why this happened to Nelson, but following the cardiac arrest he had slipped into a coma and he passed away on April 8th, 2019 due to the complications he experienced.
There was a huge outpour of grief on social media after the news of Nelson’s death was out. Many spoke of his generous spirit, immense character, and kindness.
“Dr. Nelson touched us all with his kindness, compassion, integrity, and endlessly positive attitude,” Westfield School District Superintendent Dr. Margaret Dolan said in a letter to the student’s parents, following the announcement of his passing.
His celebration of life was attended by at least 400 people at the St. John Baptist Church in Scotch Plains. An overflow room was also set-up in the back of the church, where the funeral was also being live streamed.
Nelson began his teaching career in 2002 in Plainfield. He had joined Westfield Public Schools in 2010 as the assistant principal of Roosevelt Intermediate School, where he served for two years. Dr. Nelson was the sixth principal for Westfield High School and in 2017 he interviewed with TAPinto Westfield. Dr. Nelson, who grew up in Plainfield, said he had wanted to be a teacher since he was young.
In a podcast from 2017, Nelson said, “Everyone’s walk is different. Everyone’s path is different… For me, it has been a great journey.”
No details could be given about the teen’s identity, diagnosis, or whether he received any marrow from Nelson due to privacy and confidentiality obligations.
- Donation Frequently Asked Questions https://bloodcell.transplant.hrsa.gov/donor/donating/donation_faqs/index.html
- Donating peripheral blood stem cells https://bethematch.org/support-the-cause/donate-bone-marrow/donation-process/donating-pbsc/
- N.J. principal who went into coma after donating bone marrow dies https://www.philly.com/news/new-jersey/westfield-new-jersey-principal-derrick-nelson-coma-bone-marrow-teenager-france-died-20190410.html