Dr. Nelson donates stem cells to save a life


WHS Principal Derrick Nelson has the potential to save a young boy’s life this month with the help of his stem cells. In October 2018, Be the Match, the national bone marrow donor program, contacted Dr. Nelson with news that his blood might be a match for a young boy in France. A few months later, Nelson donated his bone marrow and helped to try to save the life of a 14-year-old across the world.

In 1996, in conjunction with a blood drive Nelson’s college fraternity was hosting, he donated blood, not thinking it would be needed 22 years later. However, last fall Be the Match asked if they could test Nelson’s blood to ensure it was the right match they hoped it would be.

It was a match.

And so the process began. 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.”