WESTFIELD, N.J. — A New Jersey high school principal who went into a coma after he donated bone marrow to a 14-year-old boy in France has died.
Family members tell NJ.com that Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson underwent the donation procedure at a hospital in February. They say the 44-year-old couldn't speak or move afterward, and remained in that condition until he died on Sunday.
The flag flew at half-staff outside Westfield High on Tuesday, while counselors were made available inside for students and staff mourning Nelson's unexpected death.
"He was so nice. He always had a huge soft spot for all his students," sophomore Brynne Burke told PIX11 News.
"His reputation was like, he was such a good, caring person," said Missy McIntyre, whose granddaughter attends Westfield High School.
Sophomore Amanda Wendler and some of her Jewish classmates recently met with Nelson after a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. "He was always receptive to what we had to say," she recalled, "and he took everything we said pretty personally."
Besides his work in education, Nelson had served as an officer in the Army Reserve for more than 20 years and had recently re-enlisted. His military service included an assignment in the Middle East.
In February, the Westfield High student newspaper wrote a story about Nelson's bone marrow donation, reporting he had sleep apnea, which made general anesthesia dangerous, so doctors used a local anesthetic instead and monitored his breathing as they extracted the marrow.
Nelson's donation was rushed to a boy in France he did not know, through an international marrow registry called Be the Match, which helps cure patients suffering from blood cancers and other life-threatening diseases.
"We are deeply saddened that a person who stepped forward to donate marrow has passed away," Be The Match CEO Dr. C. Randal Mills said in a statement. "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."
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy tweeted about Nelson on Tuesday, writing "His final act was one of selflessness."
Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle posted the following statement on Facebook:
"My family was devastated to hear the news of the passing of Westfield High School principal Dr. Derrick 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. He was a man of immense character and kindness, and his legacy will live on in the generations of students whose lives he touched.
I have been in touch with Dr. Dolan and offered whatever assistance the Town can provide during this very difficult and sad time. I know you all join me in offering our deepest sympathy and prayers to Dr. Nelson's family, friends, students, co-workers, and all who were lucky to have known him. We will share the plans for his memorial once they have been announced."
Nelson's father says it's still not clear what happened to his son, who the father of a 6-year-old girl.
Friends say Nelson didn't know the French teen he was trying to help, while his father said it's not clear what happened to his son.
District officials have not yet confirmed the cause of Nelson's death, so it remains unclear if his procedure contributed.
Nelson is survived by his fiancée, his 6-year-old daughter and his parents.