Alumnus breathes easy with first feature

By Senah Yeboah-Sampong

Many artists draw inspiration from life experiences, but few find heroes living next door. This experience so moved one Columbia alumnus that it became the subject of his first feature-length documentary.

“Miracle on South Street: The Julie D. Story,” by Giancarlo Iannotta, a 2011 film & video alumnus, follows the experience of his neighbor, then-19-year-old Julie D’Agostino, and her family’s push through her near-fatal battle with cystic fibrosis, a genetic chronic illness that compromises the lungs and digestive system. According to Iannotta, the film premiered to friends and family in July at the York Theatre in Elmhurst, Ill.

“Instead of the theater staff cleaning up popcorn at the end, they were sweeping up tissues,” Iannotta said. “I said, ‘I think there’s something here a broader audience could get something out of.’”

D’Agostino and Iannotta are lifelong neighbors whose fathers emigrated together from Castel San Vincenzo, Italy, to Chicago. As children, frequent check-ups were normal for both D’Agostino and her brother Kevin, who also has cystic fibrosis, but Julie’s health suddenly declined her freshman year of college. Symptoms of the disease became more severe as time passed.

D’Agostino had been on the transplant waiting list to receive new lungs for most of her life. Her critical condition moved her up the list, but many factors, including organ size, blood type and donor location played a role in whether or not she would get what she needed. As a legal adult, D’Agostino had to decide if she wanted the first set of lungs she was offered after being hospitalized, which were HIV-positive.  She declined  the lungs in hope of a better offer. In the end, a double lung transplant saved D’Agostino’s life last fall.

“Julie had been on oxygen and had gotten to a point where it was getting much worse,” Iannotta said. “It was in the back of our minds that a [lung] transplant would be necessary, but we had no idea that it would be in such a dramatic fashion.”

For the documentary, Iannotta interviewed all eight members of the D’Agostino family, her former babysitter and Dr. Robert Love, the surgeon who performed the transplant. Iannotta also collected home movies of neighborhood gatherings, D’Agostino’s homecoming pictures and footage her father, Mario, recorded while she was in and out of the hospital. Iannotta said the film is a testament of the strength of the D’Agostino family and the community they live in.

According to statistics from Gift of Hope, an Illinois-based organ tissue donor network, 98,000 people are on the U.S. donor waiting list and 4,700 of those are in Illinois. In 2007, 300 people died while waiting for an organ transplant in Illinois. As one of 58 organprocurement organizations nationwide, hospitals are required by federal law to notify Gift of Hope in order to coordinate organ and tissue recovery services, said Tony Sullivan, marketing communications director for the organization.

“Anytime we have a potential donor, part of that whole process includes a medical screening,” Sullivan said. “Based on what we find out [about registration status and medical history], we either move forward with the recovery or rule that patient out.”

A stigma still surrounds organ and tissue donation despite medical and legislative advances. Some people fear their organs will be sold, given to the wealthy or their bodies will look different after death, said Jesse White, Illinois Secretary of State.

“People think that when they’re on life support, the doctor won’t put forth a genuine effort to save them [if they’re registered donors],” said White, who is also head of Life Goes On, a statewide initiative encouraging organ and tissue donor registration. “Individuals [who] become a part of this program put themselves in the position to become heroes.”

The film shows how hard D’Agostino works to maintain her new lungs with regular exercise and medication. The film concludes with an epilogue in which she thanks the unknown individual responsible for saving her life. She now attends Elmhurst College.

“We show Julie at her weakest moment, her most vulnerable moment,” Iannotta said. “She was tied [into] all these tubes and just seeing those deteriorated lungs, I really commend [her family] for giving me that trust and truly thank them for their generosity and courage.”

“Miracle on South Street: The Julie D. Story” is available on Comcast OnDemand and will air on WTTW Dec. 23 at 1 p.m. and Dec. 27 at 3:30 a.m..