Peggy Budai

Sept. 27, 2021
Peggy Budai
Peggy Budai

Nurse practitioner creates COVID-19 isolation solution

Peggy Budai had an idea. She wanted to improve the lives of older adults who were isolated in their homes or long-term care facilities during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Budai’s idea blossomed into a wonderful gift for Tina Cisneros and her 90-year-old mother, Dorothy Cisneros, in late 2020.

A nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist at UCHealth, Budai recognized that isolation was devastating for older people, so she constructed a ‘hug tunnel’ outside the care facility where Dorothy Cisneros lives.

By doing so, she gave Dorothy and Tina the opportunity to do something they had not been able to do for 265 days. They hugged!

“I didn’t want to let go,’’ Tina said. “It just felt so good. And I could tell it made a difference for my mom, too.’’

A hug tunnel is a simple structure that consists of a pop-up canopy tent enclosed on three sides with clear plastic. There are four armholes — two going into the tent and two going out of the tent — so that two people can embrace.

Before joining UCHealth, Budai spent a decade working in long-term care and now uses those skills to improve the care of older adults within UCHealth’s northern Colorado facilities.

Budai had come across an article about how a Brazilian father and son were able to hug, thanks to a piece of plastic. More research reviled that similar “hug tunnels” had sprung up in Canada as well.

Tina and Dorothy embrace through a 'hug tunnel' created help with elderly isolation created by the pandemic.
Tina, left, embraces her 90-year-old mother, Dorothy, through a ‘hug tunnel,’ a way to break down the barriers of elderly isolation created by the pandemic. Photo: UCHealth.

“I hadn’t seen the idea in the U.S., and thought, what if we could bring that to Colorado,” Budai said. “The idea grew from there.”

The state had created the Colorado Healthcare Ethics Resource Group to address ethical issues caused by the pandemic. As a member, she brought the idea of the hug tunnel to the group’s long-term care subcommittee.

With guidance from an epidemiologist expert and long-term care leaders at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Budai created a manual for the hug tunnel — which included instructions on cleaning and disinfecting it between uses — so that other organizations could break down the isolation barriers caused by the pandemic. What started as a mission to share best practices for helping older adults connect during a time of human isolation, turned into a project that helped hundreds of families across the country connect with their loved ones.

In the past year, Budai has helped coordinate eight hug-tunnel events at nursing homes and memory care facilities throughout northern Colorado. She assisted a group in Longmont that wanted to  offer a hug tunnel, and her manual has aided in hug tunnels being organized in states such as Delaware, Oklahoma and New York.

Being part of such an experience has been the most meaningful and fun project in her career, she said.

“Getting to talk to some of the families before the hugging happens, when they say they haven’t hugged their mom in over 250 days … I get emotional because it is such a powerful experience to be a part of this human connection that might be the last time they get to hug each other,” she explained. “It is this explosion of joy.”


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About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.