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Documentary captures struggles and triumphs of Elmhurst teen

Julie D'Agostino post-transplant

Julie D'Agostino, post-transplant

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1 to 2 p.m. Sunday on WTTW-Channel 11 and on Comcast on demand through Jan. 15. DVD for sale for $20 at JulieD

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Updated: December 20, 2012 8:49PM

Giancarlo Iannotta was out walking his dog shortly before Thanksgiving last year when he heard car horns honking on South Street in Elmhurst.

The cacophony was a welcome home for his neighbor, Julie D’Agostino. The 19-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis had just spent 42 days at the hospital after getting a double lung transplant.

“I see the family’s cars pulling up so I whip out my iPhone and run down the street trying to document the moment,” Iannotta said.

That impromptu homecoming video turned out to be the first of many scenes Iannotta would shoot for his film “Miracle on South Street: The Julie D Story.”

The nearly hourlong movie airs on WTTW-Channel 11 at 1 p.m. Sunday. It’s also available through Jan. 15 on Comcast on demand.

This heartwarming, intimate look at a suburban family’s struggle with a devastating genetic disease promises to put viewers in the holiday spirit more than any celebrity-studded Christmas special.

It’s also bound to turn more than a few folks into organ donors.

“I had no idea it would become this platform for organ donation, but it has,” said Iannotta, a Columbia College film and video graduate.

He and Julie — “one of my biggest inspirations” — go way back. Their fathers moved to Chicago from the same town in Italy when they were young boys.

The D’Agostinos bought a house on South Street in Elmhurst in 1985. They eventually moved into a bigger home a couple doors down, and the Iannottas bought their old house.

“Julie is my lifelong neighbor and friend,” Iannotta said.

Over the years he’s witnessed what cystic fibrosis has done to Julie, an upbeat, bubbly girl who didn’t let her disease stop her from performing the lead role in her high school’s production of “Hairspray.”

Cystic fibrosis causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the pancreas and the lung’s breathing passages. Two of the D’Agostinos’ six children were born with it, but Julie’s case has been more severe than her older brother’s.

The disease stunted Julie’s physical development, so she looks much younger than her 20 years. Breathing became such a struggle she had to lug around a tank of oxygen everywhere she went. Last year, the situation deteriorated to the point where a lung transplant was her only hope of survival.

Opportunity knocked in October 2011, when a set of pediatric lungs became available. She had the transplant at Loyola University Medical Center. More than a year later, the Elmhurst College student and Sigma Kappa sorority girl is living at home and doing remarkably well.

“Such a big part of my life was coughing, and now that’s completely gone,” she said. “I have a lot more energy. I feel really good.”

The D’Agostinos’ home movies, both of Julie growing up and her darkest hours in the hospital, are featured in the film. So are emotional interviews with Julie’s family and friends, as well as Julie herself, who bares her scars for the camera and speaks candidly about how unfair it feels to be saddled with a life-threatening disease at such a young age. Julie’s surgeon, Dr. Robert Love, talks about the importance of organ donation — a message Iannotta hopes resonates with viewers.

“Too many good organs are getting buried in the ground,” Iannotta said. “My hope is that people will see her story, get inspired and register to become an organ donor.”

Julie doesn’t know who her organ donor was. She only knows that a stranger saved her life.

“She got her second chance,” Iannotta said. “It’s truly a miracle.”

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