By Jamie Ducharme
April 11, 2019

A popular New Jersey high school principal died Sunday after donating bone marrow to a young boy in France, his family confirmed to news outlets.

Derrick Nelson, who was the principal at New Jersey’s Westfield High School, never recovered after falling into a monthlong coma following a bone marrow donation procedure at a Bergen County hospital, his father told NJ.com. Nelson died Sunday at age 44, though the exact cause of his death was unclear, his father said; he told ABC News that his son may have had a heart attack.

Nelson was donating bone marrow to supply stem cells to a 14-year-old boy in France with an undisclosed illness, he told Westfield’s student newspaper 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,” Nelson said during the interview.

In that interview, he also said he had sleep apnea and a blood trait related to sickle cell anemia — two conditions that complicated doctors’ plans for the donation procedure. It was unclear from media reports if the donation procedure was ultimately successful.

Students and public officials alike are publicly mourning Nelson, who was reportedly engaged to be married and had a six-year-old daughter. In a letter sent to students and parents, according to NJ.com, Westfield School District Superintendent Margaret Dolan wrote that, “Dr. Nelson touched us all with his kindness, compassion, integrity, and endlessly positive attitude. We hold him and his family in our hearts as we grieve this loss together.”

Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle called Nelson “a man of immense character and kindness,” and said her family was “devastated” by his death.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy wrote that Nelson “embodied all that makes New Jersey great,” adding that “his final act was one of selflessness.”

Community members have even started a Change.org petition to rename Westfield High School in honor of Nelson, and have collected nearly 15,000 signatures. Nelson’s funeral is scheduled for April 16.

Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.

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