A beloved Massachusetts substitute teacher is crediting a group of students with saving his life.
Dennis “Jack” Candini says he didn’t realize anything was wrong with him on April 27 as he taught at least 20 students in a food service class at Milford High School.
“I didn’t feel any symptoms. But I guess I was acting different enough to where a few of the students in the class noticed that I was slouching and starting to slur words,” Candini, 71, tells PEOPLE. “I was in complete denial that anything whatsoever was happening because I didn’t feel anything. I don’t remember it.”
It was just after 1 p.m. that Friday when the students noticed Candini was having trouble speaking. The teens jumped into action, with some calling 911 while others ran to get help from another teacher, Pam Hennessy.
“I was impressed that [the students] were willing to trust their hearts and their gut instincts that said, ‘Something’s going wrong,’ ” Candini says of the high schoolers. “They were assertive enough to continue on with what they thought was right. They refused my denials.”
He continued: “When push comes to shove, some people who you might not think are gonna react the right way, there they are right up front.”
An ambulance soon arrived, and Candini says he only realized the severity of the situation when he was placed on a gurney.
“Could I have died? I’m sure. It was critical, but I’m thankful to have survived,” he tells PEOPLE. “I couldn’t be more grateful. [The students] all did the right thing. They grasped the situation and made the right decisions.””
Candini says he taught at the school for 32 years before retiring in 2004. Ever since, he’s taken on substitute positions at the high school and has become a well-known (and beloved) face at Milford high.
William Pointer, 18, told ABC News that he’s known Candini since his freshman year, and didn’t hesitate when he saw the man behaving strangely.
“I was terrified,” he said. “But I didn’t second guess myself. I needed to get someone who could help with the situation.”
Candini remained in the intensive care unit at a local hospital for three days after the incident and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation — an irregular heart rate that can restrict proper blood flow.
Now, he says he’s focused on his recovery. But, eager to thank the students, Candini is working with the school’s principal to set up a scholarship for one senior looking to join the medical field.
“I thought I could take them to Dairy Queen for an ice cream, but this is a little beyond that,” he tells PEOPLE. “The scholarship would be in recognition of the fast action of the young people that got involved. That’s my way of expressing my gratitude.”
In a statement to PEOPLE, Joshua Otlin, the school’s principal, said officials are proud of the students for “rising to the occasion and so pleased that their decisive response got Jack the help he needed.”
“Jack is a beloved member of our school community and we are incredibly happy to see him doing well and returning to work,” Otlin continued. “I’m impressed and humbled by the maturity, care and compassion our students exhibit on a daily basis and I’m thankful that this story allows us to highlight the wonderful young people we have the privilege of working with at Milford High School.”