New Jersey

One in a Billion: Hundreds Mourn Beloved NJ High School Principal Who Died Trying to Save Teenage Stranger

Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson, 44, agreed to donate bone marrow to a 14-year-old stranger in France, then lapsed into a coma during the procedure; he died weeks later

What to Know

  • A principal who had agreed to donate bone marrow to a stranger died weeks after he lapsed into a coma during the procedure, his family said
  • Hundreds gathered to mourn Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson, 44, at a funeral in Scotch Plains on Tuesday
  • Nelson underwent the typically low-risk donation procedure at Hackensack University Medical Center in February

Hundreds of family members, students and colleagues gathered Tuesday to mourn a beloved New Jersey high school principal who died after agreeing to donate bone marrow to a 14-year-old stranger in France.

Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson, 44, told the school's newspaper in February that he had found out last year he was a match for a girl in France who needed a bone marrow donation. Nelson underwent the typically low-risk donation procedure at Hackensack University Medical Center the same month.

He lapsed into a coma during the procedure and died weeks later.

Grieving family members wore a button honoring Nelson, who spent 3 1/2 years as the principal of Westfield High, with pride as mourners remembered the educator and community member who touched so many lives.

"My cousin lived his life the way that he died, in service to others with love," relative Inga Butler said. 

Butler said Nelson started his career in the corporate sector, but quit that job to serve others -- first in the Army Reserve, then as a public school educator. 

Butler estimated the risk of what happened to Nelson at one in a billion. It just happened to be that he was the billionth person, she 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.

Nancy Radwin, a spokeswoman for Hackensack Meridian Health, previously told News 4 she couldn't comment on Nelson's 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 in an earlier statement. 

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

About 70 percent 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 percent 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 French 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."

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