Surrounded on all sides by fragile patients connected to tubes and monitors, Michael J. Ferraguto III is a calm and welcome presence in the bustling and often emotionally charged medical and surgical intensive care unit.

His red jacket slipped over the back of a chair, he reaches over and quiets one of the incessantly ringing phones. He speaks in a professional manner that reveals he knows his way around Inova Alexandria Hospital.

"MSICU, can I help you?" he says to the caller. "That was chemistry calling," he explains, hanging up the phone. "They had a report to give on a patient."

In his preppy khakis and polo shirt, Michael looks like a very young medical student or another Doogie Howser M.D., the kid doctor on that popular TV show. But he isn't even old enough to drive yet. And the 15-year-old wears the red jacket to make sure his role at the hospital is very clear: Michael J. Ferraguto III, student volunteer.

Some hospitals call the job by its more familiar name: candy stripers. Although Inova Alexandria has changed the job title, girls still don the crisp, striped pinafores that conjure up an era of bouffant hairdos and drive-in movies.

The hospital has kept the red-and-white uniform for the girls--and red jackets for the boys--so there is no mistaking who they are, said Maureen Franks, director of the hospital's volunteer services.

"I like for people to recognize the students as volunteers," Franks said.

To become a volunteer--like the 88 girls and 30 boys who did so this year--students have to have completed the eighth grade and work a minimum of 50 hours. Although the nonpaying job is open year-round, the summer season is the busiest, and the arrival of a new class of volunteers is eagerly anticipated.

"Volunteers are not just fluff anymore," Franks said. "The hospitals need this extra help and energy. The volunteers allow our staff to have more time for their professional duties."

Although some students volunteer to fulfill community service requirements at their schools, others want to check out possible health careers, enhance their college applications or give something back to their community, Franks said. They come to the hospital on Seminary Road from 34 different public and private schools all over Northern Virginia. An increasing number over the years have been boys.

From the moment the student volunteers arrive, they hit the ground running, literally. "They have to wear their running shoes here," Franks said.

The youngest students usually start out in the volunteer office, where they run errands all over the building and get a good overview of hospital life, Franks said.

"I'm just doing it to help out the community," Alyson Kepple, 14, a student at Bishop Ireton, said as she helped assemble new patient charts. "I have been thinking about being a pediatrician."

Ayesha Khalid, 16, who attends Annandale High School, said she hopes the volunteer job will help her pursue her career goal, too--in international business.

"It's going to help me for college," Ayesha said. "It'll be on my record that I did community service."

According to Franks, volunteers entering 10th grade or higher can choose where they want to work in the hospital. Among the most popular workplaces: physical therapy, same-day surgery and cardiovascular imaging. The ER, however, is off limits, unless they're in college.

Although more volunteers these days say they want to be doctors, some things never change, Franks said. "Many of the girls want to volunteer with babies," she said.

On any given day at the hospital, volunteers can be spotted pushing patients in wheelchairs, fetching medications for a nursing station or delivering cheerful bouquets of flowers. You might see them prepping rooms for new patients or taking a urine specimen to the lab.

"The teenagers are highly motivated, with a lot of energy and enthusiasm," Franks said. "It's in such contrast to how the media portrays students these days."

Rebecca Jackson liked being a candy striper so much that she never left the hospital. Only now it's not Rebecca Jackson, candy striper. It's Rebecca Jackson, nurse manager of endoscopy.

Jackson wore the red-and-white pinafore in 1972, when her mother nudged her into volunteering at the hospital. She wasn't all that thrilled.

"I was more frightened about going to a place where sick people were," said Jackson, 42, and the mother of three. "Nurses and doctors--the thought of them was very intimidating."

But then she met a kind nurse, who started her off slowly and kept an eye on her. As Jackson's confidence grew, so did her responsibilities. And her love of nursing.

Jackson went on to nursing school and spent her first eight years working in the hospital's intensive care unit. Then 13 years ago, she opened the endoscopy department, where she has been ever since.

"Volunteering gave me the knowledge that I needed to make the decision that health care is what I was interested in," Jackson said. "The warmth and the atmosphere at the hospital is really what has drawn me to stay."

Michael, who is considering a career in the health profession, has also found the hospital to be a much different place than he thought it would be, a view he expressed in "Heartbeat," the in-house newsletter.

"The hospital is sometimes perceived to be a very cold, unpleasant or serious place," the 15-year-old wrote. "I have learned that it is quite the contrary. Although the staff of Alexandria Hospital deals directly with many serious and sometimes life-threatening situations, the hospital remains a very happy, relaxed environment where it is always a pleasure to be."

Michael, a student at Bishop Ireton, volunteers three days a week and enjoys the intensity and quick pace of the MSICU. Most of the time, all 20 beds on the unit are filled.

"Mike is the best," said Pat Levista, a secretary in the unit who helps supervise Ferraguto. "He's the most mature young boy I've met in a long time. For a young boy to spend his whole summer in the hospital, his mother and father should be very proud of him."

CAPTION: At left, student volunteer Anna Gullickson, 16, escorts Elizabeth E. Lam to her ride as she leaves Inova Alexandria Hospital. Below, Rebecca Jackson, a nurse manager at Inova Alexandria Hospital, visits with patient Robert H. Leavitt, of Alexandria.

CAPTION: Student volunteers collate patient forms and charts at Inova Alexandria Hospital. From left, Sumaya Abdurrezak, 16, Ayesha Khalid, 16, Alyson Kepple, 14, Ria Serapio, 15, and Katherine Morrow, 14. In the background is Suzanne Bustamante, 17.

CAPTION: Student volunteer Michael J. Ferraguto III, 15, of Alexandria, works in the Intensive Care Unit of Inova Alexandria Hospital.