Derrick Nelson

Derrick Nelson touched the lives of many young men and women. But he never even met the teen whom he died to save.

As People reports, Nelson was the principal at Westfield High School in New Jersey. He’d spent 20 years in the Army Reserve and dedicated his life to serving others.

In October, Nelson was contacted by Be the Match, a bone marrow donor program. Nelson had donated blood decades before, and Be the Match wanted to test if Nelson might be a donor match for a 14-year-old boy in France.

When tests confirmed that Nelson was a match, the principal agreed to donate stem cells through bone marrow. Because Nelson had developed sleep apnea in the military and carried the sickle-cell trait, doctors had to come up with a plan to extract the bone marrow under local anesthesia.

Nelson told the school paper that he wasn’t deterred by the difficulty or discomfort of 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.”

Unfortunately, complications arose during the bone marrow extraction. Nelson slipped into a coma. His father told

“After the procedure he did, he couldn’t speak and was lying in the bed. His eyes were open and he realized who we were. But he couldn’t move. He never spoke again.”

The family spent the next several weeks hoping and praying that Nelson would recover. However, he never regained consciousness. He passed away last weekend.

Nelson’s fiancée, Sheronda Braker, announced his death to WABC in a statement:

Derrick 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. 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.

Nelson has been hailed as a hero for giving his life to save a teen he never met. A friend and fraternity brother tweeted that when he first heard of Nelson’s death, he’d assumed it was related to military service:

“It turns out Derrick’s death was no less heroic, and ultimately tragic,” he said. “My friend died trying to save the life of a child…a total stranger who he’d never met from a foreign land.”

The friend recounted how Nelson had initiated the blood donation and marrow screening program at their fraternity because of his “dedication to service” and because black children were more likely to die waiting for a bone marrow donation.

When the call came to donate and help the stranger overseas, Nelson never hesitated.

“Because of his sacrifice, a child in France knows a cancer-free future,” he added.

Nelson’s former students say that he was unlike any other principal they’d had and mentioned his devotion to the community. One student told

“I always knew that he was a great man. He was the type of man that used authority but was still such an approachable man. I can’t name a single person that didn’t like him. When I found out that he was first ill, it broke my heart because he was helping someone, but it really made me respect him and appreciate his service to the community even more.”

A petition created to rename Westfield High School in Derrick Nelson’s honor has already gained approximately 15,000 signatures as of this writing.

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