THE AFTERNOON at the hospital was tense. A white-haired man and his wife saw their daughter, 19, wheeled off for gynecological surgery, then rode the elevator down to double check on the private duty nurse they'd engaged for the evening.

"We've assigned Mr. Ron Jones," a secretary began matter-of-factly. The parents looked at each other and gasped.

Their teen-aged daughter had been assigned a male private duty nurse to help her recuperate from ovarian surgery.

The lobby of the hospital bustled with elevators disgorging patients on stretchers and cluster of interns and yellow-frocked women pushing food carts around. The couple sat and tried to explain to the private duty nursing supervisor.

They did not feel a male nurse was appropriate for a teen-ager who had just had gynecological surgery. Could she be assigned a female nurse?

"Absolutely not," they were told. Eual opportunity laws and anti-discrimination laws forbade such sex discrimination.

The girl's mother was still a 95-pound bundle of fury when I talked to her a few hours later.

"The average person doesn't have any rights; the patient in the hospital doesn't have any right," she said.

What a splendid test for a defender of civil and equal rights, an advocate of nondiscrimination. At first, I saw her point. I felt their daughter deserved to make the choice in advance, not in the hospital, in a somewhat alien world where wondrous-frightening events occur, and at a time when a patient is vulnerable. But it would be just as discriminatory to require that subscribers to a nursing service be informed that a male nurse might be assigned.

Later, the father said, "I just came to see my daughter through a difficult time period. I didn't expect to get involved in a civil rights matter."

The girl's male gynocologist thought nothing of it when the couple told him of the experience. "It's equal rights for men," he said. "She had a male doctor, didn't she? Besides, there are male nurses in the obstetrics ward."

When the young woman was wheeled from the recovery room, she mumbled before dropping off to sleep, "Where's my nurse, Mom?"

"You don't have one," the mother responded, having canceled the private service when she was refused a female nurse.

That night I raised the question with my husband. He thought it was discriminatory, period. A male nurse is as good as a female one, he said.

The hospital's floor nurses naturally gave the young woman excellent care through the night.Returning the next day, the parents popped the question: Would she have wanted a male nurse?

"No way," the patient, a college junior, responded. "The nurses just gave me a bath and I was stark naked. I couldn't have handled it if it had been, say, a 25-year-old man."

Another 17-year-old I casually asked said flippantly, "Not me."

I understand their feelings. But the new freedoms and guarantees against discrimination mean many old values must be cast aside by all of us.

Ultimately, the incident showed that one person's freedom may be another's momentary or long-term discomfort. But what is important is that non-discrimination laws exist and are enforced; the law is the law.

Resisting intimate care by a male nurse may be only a hold-over from the prudish Puritan past. As the songs says:

"In this modern world we're living in,

The rules ain't like they've ever been."

To that I say, like singer Ray Charles, "Amen for the rules."