Dr. Derrick Nelson told the young journalists at his high school’s newspaper in February that if “a little bit of pain for a little bit of time” could give another life and “years of joy, it’s all worth it.”
Principal of Westfield (New Jersey) High School, Nelson underwent a surgical procedure that extracted his bone marrow to save the life of a teenage stranger thousands of miles away.
On Sunday, Nelson died from complications following that surgery. He was 44.
Nelson was such a beloved principal, his students and fellow educators, and the community, want to see the school named for him.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. A 14-Year-Old in France Needed Life-Saving Bone Marrow. Nelson Was a Match & Underwent the Surgical Procedure, But Suffered What Would be Tragically Fatal Complications & After Weeks in a Coma, Passed Away
Be The Match, a non-profit that connects people who are in desperate need with others willing to donate to save lives. Nelson was a match for a boy in Europe. In an interview with Westfield High School journalist Natalie Becker in late February, Nelson said that there were a few hurdles to jump in order for the procedure to work.
“Originally, Nelson was going to donate his stem cells through bone marrow, as this course allows more stem cells to be extracted. As a result from his military days, Nelson acquired sleep apnea: a sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing stops repeatedly during sleep. Because of this, putting Nelson under general anesthesia would be extremely dangerous, so doctors turned to another form of transplant: intravenous therapy.
Nelson would have two IVs, one in each arm. He explained that, “[The doctors] take the blood out of one arm, send that blood to the centrifuge where they separate the plasma from the stem cell, then put the blood back in my arm through the other IV.”
However, on Jan. 21, at his final physical exam, before the planned stem cell extraction, 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 explained. “[The doctors] said, ‘Well if you have the trait, you can’t do stem cell.’”
The doctors went back to the drawing board, and within a day, a new plan was set. This past Monday, Nelson was put under a local anesthetic to keep a steady watch on his breathing, while doctors extracted bone marrow and sent it to France.
Despite the setbacks and pain of the procedure, Nelson said, “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.”
Nelson’s longtime close friend Salim Sivaad took to Twitter to share the story:
“Derrick was excited about the opportunity to save a life and submitted to retesting to confirm that match. When it came back positive, he didn’t hesitate to agree to donate,”
He explained Nelson “had passed his pre-surgery physical with flying colors …But something went horribly wrong. He went into cardiac arrest twice on the table.The doctors rushed to save his life while barely extracting the life-saving bone marrow. He was put into a medically-induced coma and they lowered his body temperature, desperately trying to save his brain function. Within an hour, his bone marrow was on the plane to France. Time and again, over the course of next month, Derrick’s doctors tried to revive him from the induced coma. They were unsuccessful each time.”
Sivaad said Nelson’s parents, both in their 90s, “his fiancée, and his fraternity brothers kept vigil by his bedside each day. He was surrounded by love.”
“And so my friend Derrick answered the final call to service and went home…today. Because of his sacrifice, a child in France knows a cancer-free future.”
And then Sivaad quoted Scripture.
“No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
His college fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, held a blood drive in 1996 and Nelson donated. More than two decades, that blood was a match and he had the opportunity to save a child’s life.
“My Frat brother, great friend and fellow educator has transitioned from labor to reward! Bro. Dr. Derrick Nelson, no words will articulate your impact on others! The selfless act will only acutely define the measure of you Man!”
“The told story of unselfish living: Brother Derrick Nelson gives up his life for another.”
2. Tributes Have Been Pouring in for the Educator, Father, Army Officer, & Friend. The Community is ‘Heartbroken,’ the Mayor Said. His Family & Friends Are Suffering the Loss While Honoring & Celebrating His Life
“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.”
“We offer our sincerest condolences to Principal Derrick Nelson’s family, friends, and students. His contributions to the education community, his country, and to his community will always be remembered. ”
“The community of Westfield has lost a truly selfless leader.”
“Today is my 48th birthday. I don’t celebrate birthdays…they mostly exacerbate my ever-present depression. But today I woke up to some terrible news on FB. A good friend died today at age 44. He had been in perfect health up until a month ago…
Sivaad described Nelson as “…truly a pillar of his community, beloved by all who knew him.”
“My friend died trying to save the life of a child…a total stranger who he’d never met from a foreign land.”
“If we could all live our lives like this man did, this planet would be breathtakingly amazing! Nothing but mad respect for him and his service to others! Derrick Nelson, I’m in awe! RIP.”
3. Nelson, Who Earned a Master’s & Doctorate, Was a Longtime Educator, Loved & Respected by Students & Peers
Nelson graduated from Delaware State University. As was noted by a friend, “he became one those rarest of role models: a Black male teacher in inner city schools.”
Nelson earned a master’s degree and a doctorate. Nelson began his career as a principal for the Westfield Public Schools in 2010 first as assistant principal of Roosevelt Intermediate School. He soon became assistant principal and then principal of Westfield High School.
“Dr. Nelson was an elegant gentleman and a first rate educator. He was a friend and role model to many of us. This is just so difficulty to comprehend. I enjoyed every conversation I had with him and my children looked up to him. I am, as we all are, heartbroken,” Anthony Cook wrote on Facebook.
Colleague Maria Garcia Fonseca wrote, “These 7 years working with Derrick have been the best of my 23 years of teaching. Compassionate man full of character with a contagious sense of humor. Always willing to listen, give advise and help. I will miss you always… you have left a emptiness at WHS. RIP my friend ??”
The outpouring of grief, condolence and shared memories of a good man are endless.
“God bless such a wonderful man. He was a true leader with a big heart. It is a big loss for the Westfield community. May his family be proud of ALL of his MANY accomplishments and how he lived selflessly. What a legacy of love and kindness he leaves behind.”
“What a heartbreaking loss for Dr. Nelson’s family and the City of Westfield. With prayers and
sympathy, Shelley. ?”
“A true hero and role model. My boys were blessed to know him. We are heartbroken.”
4. Nelson Was a 25-Year Army Reserve Officer Whose Job Was as a Chemical, Biological, & Nuclear Warrant Officer
According to military records and a report in Tasks & Purposes, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Derrick Nelson joined the Army Reserve in February 1994, serving as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Warrant Officer. Among his assignments was a year-long deployment in Kuwait, from June 2013 to July 2014.
“We express our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Derrick Nelson,” U.S. Army Reserve Command spokesman John Bradley told Task & Purpose in a statement.
“We share in the sorrow felt by his loved ones, and we must not forget the valuable contribution he made to his country and the impact he has left on our organization.”
5. A Petition Was Created to Rename Westfield High School as Dr. Derrick Nelson High School. Nelson Was a Father & Engaged to be Married
In a statement to CNN, Nelson’s financée Sheronda Braker said Nelson “was a tremendous father to our beloved daughter Morgan and the best companion and life partner I could have ever asked for. He loved his family almost beyond belief. He was a man who carried himself with dignity, courage and compassion,” she continued. “His last kind and generous act on this earth in giving so someone else might live is a true testament to who he was and how he should always be remembered. We will always love him.”
So deeply admired was Nelson that a Change.org petition was just created to change the name of Westfield High School to Dr. Derrick Nelson Sigh school to honor the educator. It has nearly 13,000 signatures.
“This past Sunday Derrick Nelson the principal of Westfield high school, lost his life donating marrow to a 14 year old boy in France. This level of generosity can’t go unnoticed and this would be a fantastic way to honor his memory.”
Nelson and Braker have a daughter, Morgan.
For his birthday this year, he asked friends to donate to St. Jude’s.
“I’ve chosen this nonprofit because their mission means a lot to me, and I hope you’ll consider contributing as a way to celebrate with me. ”