It started out as a group project -- a writing exercise intended to show the 14 local nurses enrolled in Jeanne Sorrell's summer class at George Mason University how to become more effective writers on the job.

What they became were published authors.

In November, "The Magic Stethoscope" rolled off the presses under the collective pen name R.N. Hope.

Although none of the career health care workers is angling to become the next J.K. Rowling, they wouldn't mind being a smash success. Not for the fame, mind you, but to inspire the nation's next generation of nurses through their book.

And not a minute too soon.

Today, more than 126,000 nursing jobs are vacant at hospitals and other health care facilities across the nation, the result of burnout, retirements and decreased interest in the field, experts say. If this acute shortage deepens, industry projections put that shortfall at close to 400,000 nurses by 2020.

The students in Sorrell's class, almost all of them career nurses at hospitals in the Inova Health System, don't want to transform the world of nursing. Instead they want to improve the way youngsters view the nurses' role and perhaps re-energize a field that seems to be limping toward extinction.

To make that happen, the nurses are pinning their hopes on the "The Magic Stethoscope," which tells the fictional adventures of two siblings, Josie, 10, and Michael, 7, who find -- you guessed it -- a magic stethoscope in their parent's attic. The 155-page story is told through the eyes of the two reluctant children who have no interest in joining the field.

"Not me!" Josie says to herself in the book's opening pages. "No way! I'm going to work at something fun and make a ton of money. . . . Why would I want to be a nurse?"

Thanks to some fictional hocus-pocus, the children are beamed to their local hospital, where they experience what it's like to walk in those "no way" shoes.

"We thought if we could target children before they've made up their minds on a career and show them how satisfying and exciting nursing is, it might intrigue them. . . . Maybe they'll see it as a possibility," said Sorrell, associate dean for academic programs and research at GMU's College of Nursing and Health Science.

It was Sorrell who wove the graduate students' class work into a cohesive story and wrote the opening and closing chapters.

"A lot of people still don't know what nurses do," Sorrell said. "We still have people who think we're carrying bed pans around. The fact is the responsibility registered nurses have today is incredible."

Each of the book's chapters depict a different kind of nursing -- from trauma work in the ER to forensic investigations -- and was adapted from the real experiences of its varied authors, who work for hospitals including Inova Fairfax and others in the Inova Health System, Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington and Washington Hospital Center.

The book's protagonists start their adventure by shocking a man's heart back into rhythm and minutes later deliver a baby in the back of a taxi. They go on to explore the hospital, meeting a host of female and male nurses who take them along as they comfort dying patients, evacuate the psychiatric ward after a patient goes berserk and shepherd a young trauma victim in from the helicopter bay.

Why do the authors reach out to 8 to 12 year olds, children still a decade away from entering the workforce? Because health and labor officials say they have to.

The average age of today's registered nurses is 44, and in 15 years, officials say, half of the nation's nurses will be retired. The state of nursing school enrollments hardly provides uplifting news. Although more students came calling this academic year, they are not enough to offset a dramatic decline in enrollment over the last decade and a worsening shortage of nursing educators.

Officials say there are just too many competing career choices for students, many of whom see a bigger payoff in fields such as technology. At the same time, the 78 million baby boomers born from 1946 to 1964 are aging, living longer and placing more demand on health care.

As a result, hospitals and nursing schools have intensified their recruitment efforts -- and continue to look for ways to keep nurses in the ranks with incentives such as flexible hours.

In August, President Bush signed into law the Nurse Reinvestment Act, which provides financial incentives for more women and men to become nurses and get advanced training. Men account for only about 6 percent of the 2.7 million nurses in the United States.

At Inova Health System, which employs 4,000 nurses in Northern Virginia, administrators are relying heavily on voluntary overtime and a temporary staff of registered nurses to fill the gaps. In addition to reaching out to college campuses, Inova has started a summer nursing camp, a one week high-intensity program intended to showcase the profession for middle-schoolers.

Still, the projections are ugly.

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the demand for registered nurses will grow 23 percent faster than the average for all occupations through 2008.

"We're treading water right now in terms of keeping all the balls in the air," said Susan Randall, director of nursing external affairs at Inova Health System. "When you combine aging nurses and many more options for kids and overlay the aging baby boomers, it has the potential to paint a dire picture for the future."

It is the modern-day Hollywood depictions of nursing that get under Theresa Davis's skin. The 45-year-old registered nurse and administrative director at Inova Fairfax Hospital has no interest in watching the television shows such as the Thursday night sitcom "Scrubs." She can just barely tolerate "ER."

Parents, she complains, watch those shows, misinterpret the roles nurses play and then discourage their children from pursuing a career where women are depicted as dingy, flirtatious and largely unnecessary compared with their M.D. counterparts.

"Nursing is not like that at all," said Davis, 45, who helped author "The Magic Stethoscope." "It's far more professional and educated, not flirting and dating doctors. We're there when people are born, and we're there when people die. . . . It's a lot of work, and your heart and soul has to be in it."

Davis said her youngest children were eager critics, helping her craft the book's third chapter -- which takes place in the trauma unit -- to be sure it would excite other young readers. If she had to wager, Davis said, she thinks her daughter, Loryn, will pursue nursing one day.

"The doctors I admire and respect," Davis said. "But it's the nurse that's at the bedside spending time with the family. They're the strands. I wouldn't trade what I do for the world."

Davis took her writing cues from the mega-popular Harry Potter series, learning a "he said, she said" style that until "The Magic Stethoscope" was totally unfamiliar to her.

Others in Sorrell's class said they hope their story will inspire readers the way they were inspired as children by the fictional adventures of nurse Cherry Ames.

"I grew up on those books," said Sue Brown, a registered nurse who has worked for 20 years at Inova Fairfax Hospital and penned the book's chapter on forensic nursing. "They encouraged me to go into nursing.

"Stethoscope" deals frankly with difficult themes, such as death and children with serious injuries and illness. Brown said, "We wanted to give kids a real look at what nursing is like today."

J.P. Maddox, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Science at GMU, said she believes the book is unique for the times and has the potential to spark imaginations in a way that could benefit the future. The book, she said, has already begun to be used by secondary school educators.

"At a time in this nation when we want more people to consider nursing, we have to make sure they understand what is so exciting and meaningful about it as a career choice and to know more realistically what a great job it is," Maddox said. "This book gives the child's view. . . . It's not just an adult perspective on nursing."

Published in November, the book retails for $12 and so far is sold only through the GMU nursing college.

Soon the book will go into wider distribution to public libraries and schools across the region. Eventually, Sorrell said, it will be available for Internet sales on popular sites such as Amazon.com and by next year is likely to enter a second printing.

Proceeds from the sale will be used for nursing scholarships at GMU.

"We anticipate that some of the book's readers may one day be recipients of these scholarships . . . to begin her or his own career as a professional nurse," wrote Sorrell in the book's introduction.

In true fairy tale fashion, 10-year-old Josie, by the end of the story, has dreams of becoming a nurse.

Copies of "The Magic Stethoscope" can be purchased by contacting Jeanne Sorrell by e-mail at Jsorrell@gmu.edu or by calling 703-993-1944.

Health analysts say there are 126,000 vacant nursing jobs nationally and are concerned that young people are not considering nursing. Kathrine O'Neill, right at left, who switched to nursing from real estate and works at Inova Fairfax Hospital, checks the heart rate of Zelma Jolley.