Striking nurses at Howard University Hospital returned to work last night after winning contract concessions during a chaotic day in which administrators were forced to close most of the emergency room and postpone surgery for patients in non-emergency cases.

The three-year agreement ratified last night calls for nurses to receive a 2 percent raise--retroactive to July 1--this year, followed by raises of 3 percent and 2 percent the next two years. Nurses also would have a larger say in setting staffing standards, and the hospital would reduce its use of forced overtime.

The 400 members of the Howard unit of the D.C. Nurses Association began their strike yesterday morning, complaining that they were overworked, underpaid and had not had a raise in three years.

"We took a chance on losing our jobs and losing everything," said Mary Jones-Bryant, head of the association, which includes nurses, dietitians, pharmacists and social workers. "But we had to stand up for what we believed in . . . I think we made a very strong statement."

When asked by if the agreement could have been achieved without a strike, a group of nurses shouted, "No."

Howard officials sweetened their proposal of pay raises and limits on mandatory overtime after struggling to keep the hospital staffed throughout the day.

Howard University spokeswoman Donna Brock said that officials were confident that the agreement "will allow us to appreciate our nurses for the work they do while maintaining a policy of fiscal discipline."

"Everyone is glad this has come to resolution," she said.

Dozens of temporary nurses from as far away as California were brought in to replace those on strike, but they weren't enough. Three times during the course of the day, the hospital was desperate enough to ask for volunteers from the picket line along Georgia Avenue NW to come in and help patients. A few picketing nurses went along with the first two requests. But the third request, just before the agreement was announced, was met with a resounding no, as angry strikers shooed a union official back inside.

Union leaders said that staffing could be back to normal as early as this morning.

"We will ask nurses to volunteer to come in before tomorrow morning," Evelyn Sommers, chief negotiator for the D.C. Nurses Association, said yesterday. "We believe the bulk of the nurses will be back."

As the hospital scrambled to meet the needs of more than 200 patients throughout the day, pickets outside the hospital carried on an enthusiastic protest, their loud calls for a new contract met by supportive honking from cars and trucks on Georgia Avenue NW.

Glenda Lewis, a nurse in outpatient services at Howard, said the strikers were drawn together by their outrage over what she called "ongoing abuse" by the hospital's administration.

"It should not have come to this," she said. "All the nurses from all the departments have the same feelings. It's created a lot of anger and dissatisfaction. People don't feel like they were fairly dealt with."

For part of the day, the hospital was staffed by more than 60 nurses whose shifts had begun late Thursday--before the strike began. Hospital officials put them on a mandatory overtime status that is reserved for medical emergencies and kept them working several hours past the end of their shifts.

"It was chaotic in there," said Agnes Olumba, a critical care nurse who treats patients recovering from surgery. Olumba, who worked from 11:30 p.m. Thursday to 2 p.m. yesterday, said that many patients had long waits for nurses to respond to their calls and that temporary nurses were unfamiliar with the hospital's basic routines and where supplies were.

"We have been understaffed quite a few times, but I haven't seen it at this level," Olumba said after she left the hospital. "The pressure is too much."

Catherine Nwokolo, a nurse in the medical intensive care unit, also described the situation inside the hospital as confusing and said the nurses in her area of the hospital were exhausted.

At 4:30 p.m. yesterday, she said, her 14-patient unit was staffed by two temporary nurses and four volunteers from the picket line, a reflection of the lengths hospital officials had to go to maintain typical staffing levels.

A dozen D.C. health officials were observing operations at the hospital throughout the day, and they indicated that overall patient care did not appear to be suffering because of the strike. If care was being compromised, officials said, they would have ordered the transfer of patients to other facilities.

"The nurses [in the hospital] have been troupers," said D.C. Health Director Ivan C.A. Walks, who avoided involvement in the labor negotiations and any service decisions made by hospital administrators. "Their clinical commitment has been expressed all day. The Department of Health has not seen any patient uncared for."

CAPTION: Heidi Bond, a nurse at Howard University Hospital, leans on her sign to rest during picketing. A few nurses left the picket line to help care for patients in the hospital.

CAPTION: Sabreta Durham, left, who has worked the night shift for 18 years, hugs Sheila Grant, center, who joined the picket line after finishing her night shift. Nurses struck over forced overtime and pay raises, among other issues.