Eric Covington was only 12 when he was diagnosed as having bone cancer. For the next few years, the Montgomery County youth shuffled in and out of hospitals for extended treatment in search of an elusive if not impossible cure. The pattern had his parents concerned.

Living in the controlled setting of a busy hospital, they said, wasn't allowing him to enjoy his youth; living in the gloom of a terminal disease ward wasn't allowing him to enjoy life.

A local pediatric home care organization helped restore their confidence and control. When Eric's diagnosis became terminal in summer 1986, Eric's mother Laura Covington enlisted the help of the Home Health and Hospice Care for Children so that Eric could come home. "He became part of the family and part of life again," she said.

The 20 volunteers and three hospice staff members from the pediatric organization run by the Jewish Social Service Agency of Greater Washington spent time helping train the Covingtons to care for Eric, and after he came home the organization's members were put on call 24 hours a day.

As Eric lay dying, they provided care to keep him relatively painless at all times, according to Laura Covington. They taught the family how to do the same, so that the Covingtons could be active in their son's life. And they were there for the entire family's emotional support, to run errands when needed, go shopping, do laundry, or just talk.

Eric died on Dec. 19, at the age of 17. But despite her obvious grief, Laura Covington was able to say he died what she and hospice staff call "a good death."

"He knew he was always a part of this family, and having him home was so important to all of us," she said. "{The hospice team} really became close to him. They really took care of him beautifully."

The pediatric hospice, part of a larger hospice program that serves terminally ill adults as well, has provided support to about 20 families in the District, Montgomery County and parts of Prince George's County since June 1984. Following national hospice guidelines, it provides care to people diagnosed with six months or less to live.

Begun with the mandate to provide one-to-one, personal care to children of all religions, the pediatric hospice offers the only program in the metropolitan area staffed with a specially trained volunteer corps, in addition to five registered nurses, two child psychologists, two art therapists and a social worker. As many as 15 staff and volunteers might be involved with each child, directors say.

"We are going to do for our patients what we want done for us during our last months. That's the type of care we're committed to," said Ann Joseloff, coordinator of volunteers.

That type of care is rapidly becoming more common and preferred, as hospital costs continue to soar and families seek a more humane approach to caring for the terminally ill.

Patients in the hospice must pay for the medical care, such as visits by nurses, but Joseloff said most of that is covered by insurance and is priced on a sliding scale. The work of the volunteers is free, she said.

According to the National Hospice Organization, the number of hospices in the United States has increased 15 percent in each of the past three years, and growth is not expected to stop before the mid-1990s. The federal government reported that Americans saved $138 million during the first two years that Medicare certified hospice care.

Nonetheless, hospices devoted to children are still uncommon. "In our society, children are not supposed to die before their parents. For parents to lose children is perhaps the most excruciating loss they can suffer," Joseloff said.

Staff, volunteers and patients agree that what makes the pediatric hospice special is the completeness of its care package. Its first role is prescribing medicine or procedures to keep patients "free from pain but still alert and beautifully responsive," as Laura Covington said of her son.

Also vital is making the family the primary care giver. "We tell the family when we go in, 'We're going to teach you everything we know, so you can feel safe, in control, and active in your child's care,' " said Penny Schwartz, the hospice's home care coordinator.

Finally, the hospice makes the care of the family as important as the patient. Staff and volunteers provide physical and emotional support to ease what Schwartz, a pediatric nurse, calls "the most stressful situation that parents can endure."

The volunteers' work continues for 14 months after the death of the child, when they continue to run errands and provide a sounding board for the families.

Joseloff said finding people to work with dying children is especially difficult. As a result, "the pediatric hospice is blessed with very special people. They're tremendously strong, compassionate and anxious to learn," she said.

All hospice volunteers take part in a six-week training program to learn about disease diagnosis, helping the families deal with grief, and aspects of physical care such as bed bathing, linen changing and feeding. The next program will begin in March. Pediatric volunteers undergo an additional four-week program.

But the volunteer's education never ends with the training program. Joseloff said in-service programs and frequent classes are also offered and a monthly support group keeps the volunteers feeling part of a team.

"I had never been around a dying person," said volunteer Janice Rosenblatt. "I was scared. But I grew close to the patients. Working with them was actually an extremely alive and warm feeling. It was very special to be close to the family, to help make such a hard time easier."

"The hallmark of what we do is not the gloom and doom thing," Schwartz said. "What we do is emphasize that every day is special. Death itself isn't so scary, but being alone is. If the patient can feel safe and loved, and the family can feel a part of that warm setting, then the experience can be a positive one. These are what we call good deaths, peaceful deaths."

During homecoming last fall at Eric's school, Paint Branch High School, arrangements were made to run the parade down his street. Eric remained active throughout his illness, his mother said, receiving regular tutorial service, learning and studying and even being accepted to a university.

"Even in the last month or so, we considered whether he might have to go back" to the hospital, Laura Covington said. "But the hospice was able to offer all his care at home. I was glad he never had to go back, very glad."