Rebecca Waldman’s 9-year-old son was not looking forward to his doctor’s appointment.
Like many other children, he hated medical treatment. But as the child sat in a waiting room at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles not too long ago, he saw a stranger wheeling a bright, colorful cart into the room.
The stranger—who turned out to be a pediatric volunteer—opened the cart. Out spilled games, toys, and children’s books. Waldman’s son went from despondent to joyful in a split second.
The boy dashed to the cart and grabbed Connect 4, the eminently distracting game of vertical checkers. Maybe the doctor’s office wasn’t so bad after all.
Waldman later spoke with “People” magazine about what happened that day at the hospital.
“Kids are frightened to be going into these types of environments for treatment. I think when they see these happy, colorful carts wheeled in and someone says, ‘Hey, let’s play!’ that keeps their minds off of what is going on.”
But what neither Waldman nor her son knew that day is that the cart, a clear gift of kindness, also serves as a memorial for a child who lost his life far too soon.
Oscar Litwak was only four months old when his parents got heartbreaking news.
Oscar had liver cancer. Between the day of the diagnosis and the end of Oscar’s life, when he was only 4, the boy spent most of his time at the hospital. Despite his treatments, Oscar’s life was full of happy moments. That’s what his parents remembered after he was gone.
“We were thinking, where was he happy?” said Sharon Litwak, Oscar’s mom. “He was in treatment his whole life. But what we remembered most was that he was really happy when he was playing.”
The Litwaks wanted to honor their son in a way that would comfort other children like him. They decided to focus their efforts on play, Oscar’s favorite pastime.
Oscar passed away in 2003. That same year, his parents created the Oscar Litwak Foundation to fund programs that would bring play into the hospital.
The cart Waldman’s son enjoyed so many years later was one of the fruits of the Oscar’s short-but-meaningful life.
The Litwaks came up with the idea of a portable play station, but the medical setting provided the look.
Each one of their mobile toy chests is made out of a crash cart, which are typically full of medical equipment and surgical tools. The play stations take crash carts, cover them in bright, cheerful colors, and fill them with board games, Play-Doh, toys, and cards.
“It’s a very simple concept,” Litwak said. “We wanted to bring some joy to these hospitalized patients. Nurses and volunteers can bring the carts to kids in their rooms if they are too sick to use a pediatric playroom.”
These play carts are absolutely a family affair. Oscar has three siblings, Ilana, Andrea, and Jessica. Along with their mom and their dad, Roberto, the entire Litwak family works together to gather materials for the carts.
This is no small-time operation. The Litwaks have to work out of a warehouse, which isn’t far from their home in Tarzana, California. Through their efforts, the Litwaks have been able to send carts to 90 hospitals around the nation. More are on their way.
Of course, these play stations aren’t free to assemble.
They each cost around $2,000. In order to cover the creation of a whole fleet of fun carts, the Litwaks get help from their local community. Volunteers organize regular fundraisers to pay for more and more carts.
“It just feels really good to see other kids smile,” Litwak said. A medical facility is “such a scary place to be,” she said. “You just bring in a little bit of play and [children] feel normal. We see kids who are so sad in the hospital, and when we come and give them toys, they just light up.”
That’s something Waldman’s 9-year-old son can attest to. Even pediatric patients who aren’t confined to their rooms are getting some use out of the incredible gift of these carts.
That’s something Oscar’s family can be proud of. Taken too soon, this child left the world a legacy of comfort.