'When I got to the hospital, I just knew the worst had happened to dad'
Following the tragic death of her policeman father who collapsed during this year's Belfast Marathon, Victoria Heaney talks to Donna Deeney about how she and sister Rebecca continued his charity work by raising over £9,000 in his memory
The daughters of a Limavady policeman who passed away while taking part in the Belfast Marathon in May have paid the perfect tribute to him by finishing the fundraising efforts he started for Macmillan Cancer Support.
In the depths of their grief after the death of their father Stephen, Victoria (18) and Rebecca Heaney (21) agreed the way to honour him was to complete the job he set out to do.
They raised an incredible £9,026 which they recently presented to Macmillan Cancer.
Mr Heaney (50) was a serving PSNI officer in his home town of Limavady who had been presented with a Royal Humane Society award for bravery after he and a colleague rescued a man from a burning building in 2009.
He was taking part in his first ever marathon and was just five miles into the run when he collapsed.
He was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital where he passed away, despite the valiant efforts of two doctors who were also among the throng of runners that administered CPR within seconds of Mr Heaney collapsing.
Mr Heaney's daughter Victoria, a first year biomedical engineering student at the Ulster University, says there's not a day that passes that she doesn't think about her heroic dad.
She adds: "I think all the time about the things my dad is missing out on. The fact that he isn't here.
"He was so proud of everything we did; me and Rebecca were stars in his eyes. He just wanted the best for us and I think that is what is pushing me and Rebecca at the minute. Every single day there's something I do that makes me think I would love to text my dad or give him a call and tell him.
"I sat my A-levels shortly after dad died. I was supposed to sit my first exam the week after dad died but I was given a pass to sit it at a later date.
"I had intended to take a gap year because I wanted to spend time with dad and my granda because my granny had passed away a year ago. My plan was to go to university next year but then I thought I might as well go this year.
"Starting university is such a big thing and I really missed my dad not being with me but me and Rebecca have accepted that there are going to be so many things he won't get to share with us.
"We do everything we can in memory of him and to try to make him as proud as possible, like the day we went to Hillsborough Castle and met Princess Anne. He would have loved that because he met the Queen a few years ago.
"We were so nervous at meeting the Princess, but when she came over to us she had already been informed who we were and that we had been invited because of our fundraising for Macmillan Cancer. She spoke to us and we told her about losing our dad in the marathon.
"She seemed to know the background and took time to ask about me and Rebecca and wished us all the best."
While their father's death understandably devastated Victoria and Rebecca, it also sent shockwaves throughout the Co Londonderry town where he worked.
Outside of his job as a police officer, Mr Heaney was a keen sportsman and had taken up running in 2015.
Victoria outlined his sporting nature: "Dad played rugby when he was younger and had cycled too, but wasn't really into running until about three years ago.
"He was a member of the Pulse fitness club and really enjoyed being with everybody there. He had taken part in a 10K run around the bridges in Limavady and really got to love running.
"He had always said before he was 50 he wanted to do a marathon but he didn't get accepted into the Dublin marathon because he hadn't applied in time. That made him decide to sign up for the Belfast marathon when he was 50.
"In a way it was like a bucket list thing for him.
"He was determined to run it but if I had known that when he was putting his running shoes on that morning that this would have been the outcome, those shoes would never have been put on."
Victoria tells of the horror of hearing about her dad's collapse: "I was talking to him the day before and said 'good luck, I'm so proud of you' and I sent him a text that night but the next morning I was awake about 10am and told he had collapsed and could we come up to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
"That was all me and my granda were told but when we got there and the consultant came in I knew that the worst had happened but I didn't want to believe it.
"As soon as I knew what was really going on I left the room. I just wanted to escape but I went back in because I wanted to make sure my granda was OK.
"I sorted everything out, told my sister what had happened but the whole day was really just a blur after that.
"The way we look at things now is that he had five miles left in his tank, he ran those five miles and got the best medical care anyone could have got in his position within seconds of him collapsing."
In the midst of their grief Victoria says they found a little solace: "It gives us peace of mind now knowing there was nothing anyone could have done, it was his time.
"Even his reason for doing the marathon was so typical of him.
"He was running in memory of his friend and colleague in the PSNI who had died from cancer and was raising funds for Macmillan. That hit the police community so hard, they had lost not one but two great men."
Mr Heaney became a police officer relatively late - just 12 years ago - having previously worked in Du Pont's chemical plant in Maydown outside Londonderry but Victoria says he found his calling in life within the ranks of the PSNI.
She adds: "Dad was so passionate about being a policeman and everyone in Limavady had so much respect for him. He always wanted to see the good in everybody and even if someone was in trouble, he would quietly try to do what he could to help them.
"Even when he won the bravery award, he played it down so much which was typical of him but he knew how proud we were of him and I think underneath it all he was proud of himself."
The sisters' love for their dad is evident as Victoria adds: "Rescuing someone from a burning building is just something he would do because he was the kind of person who would do his best for anyone.
"He loved his job so much, he worked as a policeman for over 12 years because he wanted to make a difference and I know he would never have left it.
"He had liked his previous job but he was really happy being a policeman.
"Growing up I never heard one person say a bad word about my dad which I think is quite unusual because you sort of expect people to say bad things about the police but everyone liked him."
Just days after the death of their father, before they had even said their final goodbye to him at his funeral, Victoria and Rebecca had decided to launch an online fundraising page.
Victoria says: "We were sitting at my dad's wake and people were coming and giving us donations for dad's marathon fund.
"So we said it might just be handier to make a JustGiving page so people could make a donation online.
"I set up a page with a short tribute to dad on it and within 20 minutes it just took off.
"So many people shared it including the Belfast Marathon organisers and the PSNI and it was shared right around Ireland. We even got a donation from Australia. We knew that because he was so well-known and respected in Limavady we would be able to gather a bit of money.
"What I didn't expect was that we would get the amount we did get.
"I think the thing that kept us going was the thought that we knew we would be making him proud because he was such a charitable man himself.
"He took part in so many charity events so I thought it was a perfect tribute to him.
"We first set a target of £1,000 but within 48 hours we raised £4,000 so then I changed the target to £5,000 and ended up raising £7,000 through JustGiving and over £2,000 more in lieu of flowers for dad's funeral and a couple of other donations.
"I am sure my dad would be shocked at the amount we raised but so proud too. He was so humble he would never have believed so many people would have come together and donate in his name.
"It is comforting to know that the money we raised will help other people because that was everything my dad was about.
"I know he would have been so proud of us. If he was here he would be showing us off to the world."