Veteran Jim Borelli was frustrated because he couldn’t use a standard round joystick to operate his power wheelchair. Then a Milwaukee VA Medical Center physical therapist came through with a square 3D-printed replacement and Borelli was back in control.

Borelli, who has a spinal cord injury that resulted in quadriplegia, couldn’t keep his hand on the round surface of the joystick.

“I would drive the chair maybe five or ten feet before slipping off the [joystick],” said Borelli. “It was very frustrating and made life more difficult than it already was.”

A 3D-printed joystick lets Jim Borelli independently operate his wheelchair.

Borelli’s physical and occupational therapists tried to fix the problem without success.

“They were banging their head against the wall, trying various methods—six different joysticks—without any real headway,” said Katie Schultz, a Milwaukee VA physical therapist.

After watching Borelli’s arm and shoulder movements, Schultz realized the issue was the shape of the joystick. Schultz used a 3D printer to make a rectangular replacement at a cost of about three dollars in materials.

Back in the driver’s seat

Almost immediately, Borelli was back in the driver’s seat.

“It was the first time since he was injured that he was able to drive his power wheelchair,” Schultz said. “That opens up a world. The fact that you can leave your hospital room and actually go out and talk to people in the hallway. That’s huge.”

Schultz said that in addition to saving taxpayer dollars, 3D printing has greatly reduced the time needed to produce individualized equipment.

The $3 replacement part that made all the difference.

“We’ve gone from six to eight weeks down to three or four days,” she said. “Not only are you saving time, now the Veteran has that in their possession much sooner. That is the part that continues to amaze me, day in and day out.”

Schultz said using the 3D printer to help Borelli and other Veterans is its own reward.

“Working within the confines we have, we were able to give him more independence,” said Schultz. “That is the reward, changing lives.”


Benjamin Slane and Jim Hoehn are public relations officers with the Milwaukee VA Medical Center’s Office of Public Affairs.

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2 Comments

  1. Startupback October 21, 2019 at 9:34 am

    I have been able to pick points from this self-employment idea. I hope to try my hands on 3D printing soon. Great share!

  2. Reelmp3 Media October 18, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    the impossible made possible

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