A beloved high school principal is being remembered after giving his life donating bone marrow to a 14-year-old he never knew.

Derrick Nelson, Principal of Westfield High School in Northern New Jersey heroically decided to donate his bone marrow to a 14-year-old boy in France whom he had never met.

Normally the procedure is relatively routine, but Nelson suffered from sleep apnea — a sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing stops repeatedly during sleep — and wasn’t able to go under general anesthesia, the more common method used for the procedure.

During a pre-procedure interview with his school newspaper, Nelson explained that he was initially told he couldn’t donate his blood marrow not only because of his sleep condition, but  also because he carried a certain gene.


“I said well I don’t have sickle cell, but I have the sickle cell trait,” Nelson said to the interviewer. “[The doctors] said, ‘Well if you have the trait, you can’t do stem cell.’”

But the doctor’s didn’t close his file when he told them that — instead, they came up with a modified bone marrow retrieval process — using local anesthesia and extracting cells from his bone marrow.

Nelson made it through the procedure okay, but afterwards, it was immediately clear something was wrong.

“He couldn’t speak,” his father, 81-year-old Willie Nelson, said during an interview with NJ Advance Media. “His eyes were open and he realized who [family members] were. But he couldn’t move. He never spoke again.”

After a month-long coma, which his family expected him to come out of, Nelson died on Sunday, according to NJ.com.

According to his father, they “really don’t know the full story of what happened” to the 20-year member of the Army Reserve.  Nelson is survived by his mother, Juanita, his fiancée, Sheronda, and their 6-year-old daughter.

While what happened to Nelson is troubling, his case is extremely rare. Normally, bone marrow donation procedures are considered very safe.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the most serious risk associated with donating bone marrow involves the use and effects of anesthesia during the removal surgery. Furthermore, local anesthesia is considered much safer than general.

In very rare cases, a person under local anesthesia may experience a depressed CNS syndrome, in which the central nervous system slows down too much. This can lead to a decreased rate of breathing and heart rate and result in cardiac arrest if the blood stops pumping to the heart.

Nelson’s tragic death shouldn’t scare you away from donating bone marrow to someone in need. Your body’s a lot more resilient than you might think, and the benefits to donating far out way the risks.

It’s not as difficult as you might think.

Joining a registry takes less than 10 minutes. All you have to do is fill out an online form and take an at-home swab test. If you match up with someone, you will be contacted. If you are asked to make a donation, most of the time it is done via stem cell and not bone marrow — the whole process is pretty similar to donating blood.

Your body will replenish itself.

According to Be the Match, the bone marrow donation organization used by Nelson, your cells will replenish themselves in 4 to 6 weeks after the bone marrow removal. This means that you will be back to normal in about two months with no negative long-term effects.

It won’t cost you anything.

All travel and medical costs involving the bone marrow removal are covered, meaning you won’t have to pay anything out of pocket.

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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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This article originally appeared on 06.16.15


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