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Fiancée of beloved principal who died after bone marrow donation sues New Jersey hospital

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A vigil was held for Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson who died trying to save the life of a child he did not know.
Alexander Lewis, Home News Tribune and Courier News

ROSELAND, N.J. – The fiancée of a high school principal who died after donating bone marrow to a boy in France earlier this year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a New Jersey hospital and others.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in Union County Superior Court by Sheronda Braker, the mother of former Westfield High School Principal Derrick Nelson’s 5-year-old daughter. Braker is being represented by attorney David A. Mazie of Mazie Slater Katz Freeman, a firm specializing in medical malpractice.

During a news conference Monday at the law firm, Braker, who was joined by Nelson’s parents, Juanita and Willie Nelson, said she is seeking justice. Braker and the Nelsons live in Plainfield.

“I want to make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else that decides to undergo a procedure to donate,” she said. “This is justice for our daughter who does not have her father. Who cries for her father. As a mother you want to be able to help your child, and that’s something I can’t fix. It’s justice for his parents who lost their only child. Justice for countless families and friends who have lost just a great, great person. And for me, I’ll never be Mrs. Nelson.”

Derrick Nelson’s death: N.J. high school principal dies after donating bone marrow to boy

In response to the lawsuit, Hackensack Meridian Health issued the following statement: 

“We were saddened by the tragic death of Dr. Derrick Nelson and have shared our deepest sympathies with his family, his students, the community, his friends and colleagues he touched. He leaves a remarkable legacy as an educator and veteran. We are unable to say more at this time due to the litigation process; however, we have been in communication with the family through their legal representation. It is important to note that the safety of our patients remains our primary focus and we have one of the largest and most experienced transplantation teams in the country.”

Braker and Nelson had been scheduled to marry on June 29. Her wedding gown is still at the bridal shop. 

“Nothing will ever bring him back, but we want to make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else,” Braker said.

The amount of monetary damages sought in the lawsuit has not been specified. The case is expected to take about two years to resolve. 

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Lawsuit details

The lawsuit claims an anesthesiologist allegedly committed medical malpractice during a procedure in which Nelson was donating bone marrow to a 14-year-old child in France that he did not know who was suffering from cancer.

As a result, Nelson suffered severe brain damage and died several weeks later. He was 44.

The lawsuit names Jerry Barratta as the specialist in anesthesiology.

“On Feb. 18, 2019, Dr. Nelson underwent the procedure at Hackensack University Medical Center, John Theuer Cancer Center. At the time of the procedure Dr. Nelson was known to have sleep apnea and was overweight: two factors which made him a high risk for undergoing anesthesia,” the lawsuit states. 

According to the lawsuit, at the time the anesthesia was administered Nelson had a low oxygen saturation level and yet defendants proceeded to administer anesthesia without giving him extra oxygen. 

“This was a breach of standard care,” the lawsuit states. 

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“They should have stopped the procedure immediately,” Mazie said, adding if the procedure had been stopped Nelson would be alive. “Hopefully this lawsuit will have the effect of others giving pause and not giving anesthesia lightly, and I’m not talking about patients. I’m talking about anesthesiologists. I don’t know what went on in that operating room. I don’t know why they didn’t monitor him. I don’t know if they were paying attention, but we are going to find out and this can never, ever happen again.”

The lawsuit states Nelson’s oxygen saturation level continued to drop to the point where he suffered a severe and permanent hypoxia brain injury which led to his death. 

Mazie said Hackensack University Medical Center, the anesthesiologist and other physicians were “negligent” during the bone marrow procedure.

He said the hospital was aware Nelson was at a slightly higher risk with sleep apnea for undergoing anesthesia but were “negligent” in failing to properly monitor him and stop the procedure.

When they did act, Mazie said they gave Nelson a mask, but still didn’t provide enough oxygen. 

“Dr. Nelson suffered severe brain damage, was in a comatose state and died several weeks later,” Mazie said, adding Nelson lived and died as a hero.

“As many of you know, Dr. Nelson was one of a kind. Many people talk about donating their time to charity and helping others, but Dr. Nelson’s entire existence was living this way,” Mazie said.

He said when Nelson learned about the child in France, within a matter of weeks he decided to donate his bone marrow. 

Mazie said the lawsuit is not about being scared to donate bone marrow or organs. 

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“There is nothing unsafe about donating bone marrow and donating organs. The message here is make sure when you are doing your job and giving anesthesia you’re monitoring your patient and you act accordingly,” Mazie said.

Braker said there is a risk with any procedure, but the doctors are charged with making sure that the person comes out of that procedure in good health. 

“They are charged with that life and being responsible for that life,” she said.

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  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.1 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.2 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.3 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.4 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.5 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.6 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.7 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.8 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.9 of 10
  • The fiance of former Westfield High School Principal Dr. Derrick Nelson has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hackensack University Medical Center and others over Nelson's unexpecteddeath on April 8.10 of 10

Army veteran meets the little girl he saved with his bone marrow donation

Nelson had also served in the U.S. Army Reserve.  

Nelson was named principal in February 2017. He previously served as acting principal and assistant principal since July 2012. He began his administrative role in the Westfield Public Schools as assistant principal of Roosevelt Intermediate School in 2010.

Prior to his arrival in Westfield, Nelson was assistant principal in two public schools in Orange, serving students from kindergarten through middle school. He began his career in education in 2002 as a teacher in the Plainfield school system.

During his funeral, Westfield Superintendent of Schools Margaret Dolan described Nelson as a hard-working man of intelligence and integrity, who was kind, compassionate and possessed an endlessly positive attitude.

Contributing: Alexandra Antonucci, Bridgewater (N.J.) Courier News 

Follow Suzanne Russell on Twitter: @SRussellMyCJ

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