As we report each year during our fund-raising campaign on behalf of Children's Hospital, the staff is exceptionally dedicated. My assistant, Lynn Ryzewicz, has the story of one nurse who takes dedication to new heights:

Virginia Gebus, a nurse practitioner for the gastroenterology and nutrition department at Children's Hospital, doesn't call what she does a job. She calls it a vocation.

A nurse practitioner for 27 years, Virginia has spent the past 14 at Children's, working with patients who have lifelong digestive problems.

She treats 200 to 300 chronically ill children who have specialized feeding needs. Some of her patients are missing the majority of their small intestines. Some have cerebral palsy. Others can't swallow without food getting into their lungs.

Virginia, known as Ginny to her patients, calls herself the plumber of the gastroenterology and nutritional team. She assists doctors during their rounds, but her main role is to maintain feeding tubes.

Ginny's patients get nutrition through a tube inserted either in a vein or the stomach, or through the nose. She teaches families how to use the tubes so they can feed their children at home instead of in the hospital.

"Teaching parents is one of the best gifts I can give them," she says. "I free them from the burden of someone else's schedule."

Ginny works 11-hour days. She spends much of her time on the phone, answering parents' questions about feeding tubes. When she's working in the department's clinic, she makes sure she's easily accessible to patients at home. When parents page her, she calls back immediately.

Nagarani Kanumuri, of Silver Spring, said she consults Ginny all the time about her 13-month- old daughter, Manisha. When she was an infant, Manisha had six surgeries to remove 90 percent of her small intestine because of a disorder called short-bowel syndrome. Manisha gets nutrition through a tube inserted into the wall of her stomach.

"Any time I need her, I can reach her," Nagarani said of Ginny. "She's always available, and she'll walk me through whatever problem I have" with the feeding tube.

Nagarani also looks to Ginny for comfort. "The first thing she always says to me is, 'Relax. This is nothing,' " Nagarani said. "That's the first thing I want to hear. She never panics. Then she gives me a hug and tells me not to worry."

Anita Byrd Jones, a nurse at Potomac Hospital, said she looks to Ginny for comfort, too. Her son, Jonathan, 23, suffers from cerebral palsy and had reconstructive gastrointestinal surgery in 1990. Since the operation, the family has been going to Ginny to learn feeding techniques.

"Ginny knows how difficult the road is and gives you a word of encouragement," Anita said. "She becomes part of your family and you become part of hers. She epitomizes a health care professional."

Ginny insists she is no martyr, but admits she puts a lot of time and energy into her patients.

"What I've learned in 27 years is that some things you want to be there for, even if it encroaches into your private life," she said. Nagarani said she always sees Ginny staying late at Children's. "I tell her to go home. She says she has one more patient to see," Nagarani said.

Ginny admits that she's tough on her staff. She compares herself to a "prickly pear."

"I grew up five miles from New York City," Ginny said. "I was not graced with a velvet tongue."

There are tough days, Ginny said, when she wonders why she didn't go to cooking school. Cooking is one of her hobbies when she's at home in Alexandria, along with gardening, bird-watching and enjoying her parrot, Tess.

But the good days at Children's outweigh the bad, she said. A smile comes over her face when she talks about them.

Learning how to use a feeding tube is a process, Ginny said. When parents learn how, they don't spend the whole day trying to feed their child, so they have the freedom to enjoy their child.

"It's a high when [families] master it," Ginny said.

"Nursing is a vocation, a spiritual act," she said. "You're dealing with people in the worst moments of their lives, helping them accept a condition."

Ginny is quick to credit others, especially the families of her patients. "I wouldn't be here unless they were here," she said.

She also acknowledges the staff she works with. "I am one piece of an enormous puzzle for children with special needs," she said. "I'm the hub of the wheel, which doesn't turn without many spokes."

Our goal by Jan. 21: $650,000.

In hand as of Jan. 1: $387,787.90.

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE CAMPAIGN:

Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C. 20071.

BY VISA OR MASTERCARD:

Call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 on a touch-tone phone. Then punch in K-I-D-S, or 5437, and follow instructions.