San Diego Teacher Hospitalized in Ireland With H1N1 ‘Gaining Strength’

Bob McHeffey, an English teacher at Westpoint High School in the Poway Unified School District, is recovering from H1N1 and double viral pneumonia

NBC 7 San Diego

A San Diego teacher hospitalized with H1N1 on a school trip to Ireland is set to soon be discharged after spending more than three weeks in an overseas hospital.

In mid-April, Westview High School English teacher Bob McHeffey accompanied a group of students, including his daughter, Delaney McHeffey, on a spring break trip to Ireland. A few days into the trip, McHeffey started to cough.

The cough escalated to various other symptoms, so he called doctors at his hotel and received medication over the next several days.

Then, two days before the group was due to return home to San Diego, McHeffey took a turn for the worse.

“I don’t generally get ill,” he told NBC 7 in a video interview Friday from his hospital room in Ireland. “I felt incredibly weak.”

An ambulance was called to his hotel and he was rushed to a hospital. There, he was diagnosed with H1N1 and double-viral pneumonia.

McHeffey has been hospitalized for the past 18 days in Derry, Ireland, unable to be discharged or fly home due to his condition. The students on the school trip returned home, while McHeffey’s wife, Kay McHeffey, flew to Ireland to be by his side.

Since then, his focus has been on recovering and getting home in time to see their daughter go to prom.

Last week, McHeffey told NBC 7 he had been “gaining strength” daily.

“I’m feeling better than I was at the beginning. Little victories to get better – I’m gaining strength. I’m almost off the oxygen and able to breathe on my own,” McHeffey told NBC 7. “My body has been incredibly weak, so being able to have the strength and stamina to walk – right now I can’t walk 20 feet without oxygen.”

McHeffey said his body had been spiking fevers and doctors were trying to figure out what was causing that.

“Once those [fevers] are taken care of, then we have a shot at being released and figuring out how to get me home,” he explained.

On Wednesday, McHeffey's wife confirmed that her husband was set to be released from the hospital Thursday. She said they will have to stay in Derry for several days before McHeffey is 100 percent cleared to fly home.

By the time he's discharged, he will have spent 23 days in the hospital and nearly a month away from home.

The teacher is very much missed by both students and faculty at Westview High School. Students and faculty created an 18-minute video for him earlier last week to cheer him up dubbed, “We Miss You, Bob!”

The sweet tribute features dozens of colleagues and students sending McHeffey their well-wishes and expressing just how much he means to them.

Many students in the video say class is not the same without McHeffey and credit him with deeply influencing their lives.

McHeffey – who has been teaching for the past 29 years, logging 12 years at Poway High School and about 15 at Westview – said he watched the video at the hospital and it made him cry.

He said he’s humbled by the support and messages from his students, and proud to have impacted their lives in some way.

“It’s nice to be affirmed in your life,” he said, smiling. “As teachers, you always know you have influence, but it’s not always good influence, too. But if you helped influence them to grow – that’s where it is.”

McHeffey said the influence of teachers on students is often more long-term than immediate, as in a teacher doesn’t always get to see students come into their own until they grow up.

“It’s nice to see that it [the impact] lasts. That’s the best part about teaching,” he added.

McHeffey has certainly made his mark on Westview High School senior Emmit Pert.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education named Pert among the 52nd class of 2016 U.S. Presidential Scholars. The 17-year-old is among just 160 high school seniors nationwide chosen for the prestigious honor and among seven from California.

The teen spoke with NBC 7 Wednesday and said one of the steps of the application process for the award included a letter of recommendation from an important teacher in his life.

Pert said that letter came from McHeffey, who has been very influential to him. Pert said he is just one of many students inspired by McHeffey.

McHeffey said hearing the news of Pert’s big award was a happy moment during such trying times. Pert was one of the students who traveled with McHeffey to Ireland last month.

McHeffey credited the student for working hard and earning the accolade.

“I doubt my letter had much to do with it,” said McHeffey. “Emmit is a tremendous kid -- insightful, engaging about everything. I take very little credit for Emmit’s success but I like basking in the fact that he is doing awesomely.”

“He is a great kid,” the teacher continued. “I love having conversations with him, and they range from politics to literature to ideas, to simple things in life. It’s nice – as someone who’s been teaching for a long time – I can talk to a 17-year-old and feel like we’re peers.”

McHeffey is supposed to travel to Washington D.C. with Emmit on June 19 to watch the student receive the Presidential Scholar award.

However, that trip all depends on the teacher’s recovery.

“We don’t know when I can get out of here to go home – and what it’s going to look like to travel – and whether I’ll be up to traveling again once I’m home,” McHeffey said.

For now, McHeffey said there is no date or timeline for his release from the hospital or trip home from Ireland. He said the next steps in his recovery include trying to breathe on his own and gain independence.

A close family friend started a GoFundMe fundraiser page online to help cover the costs of McHeffey’s medical care. As of Wednesday morning, nearly $25,000 had been raised for the beloved teacher.

The page is flooded with messages for McHeffey and this outpouring of support, paired with the video from his students and the good news of Pert’s achievement, fills McHeffey’s heart with happiness.

“You like to know that you’ve had an impact on a wide range of people,” he said, holding back tears. “So, that’s been great; just great. I love the video from the school. I’ve got good colleagues, great students.”

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