A year ago, Joseph Byrnes was barely hanging onto his life. After he threw out his back installing an air conditioning unit in Rockville Centre in 2011 -- injuring his lumbar discs -- he was unable to work, drive or walk without a cane.
Rock bottom came in August of last year, the day his fiancée Alexis Friedman found him unconscious on the floor of his bedroom after an overdose of pain pills.
“After I woke up, I started searching online for others in the same situation, and after hearing their stories I finally woke up from my depression,” said Byrnes, 27, of Miller Place. "I had a second chance."
From that moment on, Byrnes turned his struggle into something that could benefit others. He formed the nonprofit All Backed Together to raise awareness of the severity of spinal injuries and need for research. He sells rubber bracelets sporting the organization’s name and is holding the inaugural All Backed Together 5K run on Sept. 7 at 9 a.m. at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai.
Byrnes had been having back problems before his Rockville Centre injury. Afterward he underwent the first of two spinal fusions on Oct. 11, 2011, which he said was a failure and caused him even more pain.
For Friedman, it was hard seeing her new fiancée -- he proposed shortly after the accident -- beating himself up emotionally every day, his depression worsening and the couple slowly losing their friends and family.
“Before he was hurt he was like Superman,” said Friedman, 23. “Now, he can’t shower standing up, it hurts for him to sit down and he can’t lift a carton of milk. It changed everything.”
But by connecting with people throughout the country and globally through a Facebook page that he formed last January -- which has garnered 770 likes and touts the benefits of aquatic therapy -- he found hope that he could change lives for the better.
Ryan Rybicki, of Highland, Ind., was one of the many who reached out to Byrnes through Facebook and email, finding immediate support and inspiration through All Backed Together.
“Being in constant pain wreaks havoc on your mind and body, so to have that person to talk to that gets and understands your pain is a miracle,” said Rybicki, 32, who also has a spinal injury. “Joe is my lifeline. He helps me through the dark moments and my situation is better because of him.”
Though Friedman's friends and family urged her to leave him when he could barely take care of himself, she said she’s proud of what an inspiration he's become to others and would never think of leaving him.
“People don’t understand how painful it really is and how much life changes because of it,” she said. “When he was hurt our life had only just begun. We had just got engaged and our life together had just taken off. But I’ll always stand by him.”
Byrnes’ dream is to someday open an aquatic therapy clinic and simultaneously help victims of spinal injuries get their lives back through support groups, obtaining grants for MRIs and surgeries or a sponsor program to help those struggling with everyday activities.
“I can’t just sit down and feel sorry for myself anymore when people need help,” he said.