Choo-Choo Hut delights both the young and the young at heart

July 26, 2016

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Almost 14 years ago, Dr. Jamil Azzam waited in anticipation for the dedication of what he now calls his legacy – the Texas Children’s Choo-Choo Hut, an intricate model train exhibit nestled into a wall at the entrance of the Abercrombie Building.

A boy attending the ceremony with his mother drew the curtain on the hut to reveal what Azzam and his wife, Charlotte, donated to the hospital in hopes of enchanting both the young and the young at heart. Almost instantly, the Azzams’ wish became a reality.

Children and their families who were walking in the halls near the newly opened Choo-Choo Hut flocked to the display, pressing their faces against its glass wall to get a glimpse of the detailed scenes that range from a carnival, an urban area with skyscrapers, a castle and a fishing harbor.

One patient in particular, however, stood out to Azzam, who, at the time, was a pediatrician with Baylor College of Medicine. This patient, Azzam said, had cancer and did not have long to live. As a result, the patient told Azzam and his wife that her dying wish was to be the first person to push the buttons on the display to activate the trains running through the various scenes.

The little girl got to push the buttons. She died the next day.

“Every time I think about the train I think about that young girl and I get tears in my eyes,” Azzam said during a recent phone interview. “I am happy that I could grant her a dying wish and I am left with heartfelt enjoyment that I gave something worthwhile to Texas Children’s Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine and the City of Houston.”

The Choo-Choo Hut recently got national accolades from popular sideline reporter Craig Sager during his acceptance speech for the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Awards, or the ESPY Awards. During his speech, Sager talked about his journey battling cancer and the comfort he’s found in the model train exhibit at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“Now I don’t know why I am so brought to this train set,” Sager said. “Perhaps it’s my life coming full circle. Maybe it’s just the kid inside all of us. Or perhaps it’s a few minutes of my life that leukemia can’t take from me.”

Don Bozman, the professional model builder Azzam hired to construct the train at Texas Children’s Hospital, still helps manage the maintenance of the train and said during a recent interview that over the years he’s seen both children and adults receive a moment of refuge from engaging with or simply watching the display. Some of the people he’s seen come in wheelchairs, others use walkers and at least one patient came with a prescription from a doctor who ordered her to go see the display.

“Even though it’s brief, it’s an escape,” Bozman said. “And people, especially children, have great memories, so it stays with them.”

Like Azzam, Bozman said making the Choo-Choo Hut a reality for Texas Children’s Hospital has been the most rewarding thing he’s done in life and that it’s mean a great deal to see the look in people’s eyes when they see it.

“It’s wonderful,” he said. “I’m glad it’s positively affected so many people.”

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