Principal goes into coma, dies after donating bone marrow to teen

In this undated photo provided by Westfield Public Schools in Westfield, N.J., Dr. Derrick Nelson, the principal of Westfield High School in Westfield, N.J. is shown. Family members tell that Nelson died Sunday, April 6, 2019, after slipping into a coma in February while donating bone marrow to a 14-year-old boy in France. Nelson was 44 years old. (Westfield Public Schools via AP)

WESTFIELD, N.J. — A New Jersey high school principal who had agreed to donate bone marrow to a 14-year-old stranger in France has died, weeks after he lapsed into a coma during the procedure, his family said.

Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson, 44, told the school's newspaper that he found out in October that he was a match for the unidentified French teen. Nelson underwent the typically low-risk donation procedure at Hackensack University Medical Center in February.

His father, Willie Nelson, said Wednesday that his son went into cardiac arrest at some point during the procedure, but he didn't know any other details. He died Monday, according to the hospital.

"He excelled at everything he did," his father said. "Everything he did in life was for a purpose."

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.


"This was a tragic outcome and we extend our deepest sympathies to the family of Dr. Nelson, to all of his students and their families, the community, his friends and colleagues whose lives he touched," Radwin said.

Nelson, who had a 6-year-old daughter and was engaged to be married, didn't know the French teen but wanted to help nonetheless, he told the high school newspaper in February, before the procedure.

"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," he told the student newspaper.

He also told the newspaper that he had several health issues that complicated his planned donation. His sleep apnea prevented doctors from using general anesthesia, and they instead were to harvest stem cells intravenously.

However, at his final physical exam on Jan. 21, Nelson was asked if he had sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder. "I said well I don't have sickle cell, but I have the sickle cell trait," Nelson told the newspaper. "(The doctors) said, 'Well if you have the trait, you can't do stem cell.'"

They ultimately decided to do the bone marrow surgery under a local anesthetic, he said.

Nelson and the teen were connected through Be the Match, a worldwide bone marrow registry network.

About 70% of patients needing a bone marrow transplant don't have a fully matched donor in their family, according to Be the Match's website,

Bone marrow donation is considered 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's website.

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, according to Be the Match.

"We deeply appreciate Derrick's willingness to step forward to donate, and we share our sympathies and condolences with his family," said Dr. C. Randal Mills, CEO of Be the Match. "Marrow donation is a selfless decision that helps save the lives of thousands of patients each year. ... we thank anyone who steps forward to donate and help save a life."

Nelson also 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.