Catholic school alum gives powerful gift to a man in need — part of her liver

When Janet Alexander (pictured at left with her family) learned a family from Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Waterford needed help, she didn't hesitate to step forward — even if that meant donating part of her liver so that Al Knake (pictured at right with his wife and two grandsons) could live. (Family photos).

Janet Alexander knew Al Knake’s family through Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Waterford, but the families now share an unbreakable bond

WATERFORD — Al Knake is a fighter. In 2005, he beat pancreatic cancer. Sixteen years later, he found himself once again fighting for his life.

The latest fight benefitted from a little divine intervention — and a generous gift from an alumna of Our Lady of the Lakes High School in Waterford. 

Katie Larsen, Knake’s daughter, remembers when her father discovered his liver was failing, and he would need a liver transplant. “The symptoms started last summer,” said Larsen, who spoke with Detroit Catholic on behalf of her father, who still is recovering from surgery. “My dad’s abdomen was filling up with fluid.” 

She explained the previous surgery that removed his cancer involved redesigning his entire digestive system. “The only organ they did not touch was the liver,” she said. “So his liver has been working overtime to make up for that for the past 16 years, and it finally said, ‘I’m done.’”

Doctors determined Knake would need a new liver from a living donor — a liver can regenerate itself if part of it is surgically removed — and after testing family members for a possible match, the Cleveland Clinic found a possible donor in his cousin’s daughter, Rachel. The surgery was set for December 2020, but when Rachel went to the clinic, doctors discovered her liver was too small to safely perform the surgery. 

With nowhere else to turn, the family reached out on social media, and to their amazement, 14 people stepped forward. One was Janet (Whalen) Alexander, a family friend who knew Larsen’s sister, Heidi, from Our Lady of the Lakes High School in Waterford. 

The Knake family has a long history with Our Lady of the Lakes: “My brother, my sister and I went to school at Our Lady of the Lakes all 12 years,” Larsen said. “Now, three of Al’s eight grandchildren attend Lakes.”

After putting Alexander in contact with the Cleveland Clinic, it was determined she was an excellent match. 

“It’s very rare for a woman to be able to donate to a man,” Larsen explained. “The liver in a woman is smaller than it is in a man. We are lucky Janet has a larger liver.”

The surgeries were set for March 8. Janet’s surgery took about 7 ½ hours, followed by 13 hours of surgery for Al. 

Janet Alexander, right, is pictured with a group of friends from Our Lady of the Lakes, including Heidi Knake Newby (blue hat), whose father, Al, needed a kidney transplant. Also pictured is Stacy Sahajdack Pasini (grey hat), who also acted as Alexander’s caregiver after her surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. 

Alexander said her surgeon, Dr. David Kwon, did a special procedure on her, the first of its kind in the western hemisphere. “Typically they take either the right or the left lobe laparoscopically,” she said. Her surgeon took only part of her right lobe. “It’s a much more intricate surgery. Not every surgeon is willing to do that type of transplant. It comes with more complications and takes longer.”

Alexander has had minor complications, she said, adding she has had to to return to the Cleveland Clinic a few times “to make sure all my labs and my liver function continue to go in the right direction.”

Alexander’s liver should return to full function in about two to three months. In the meantime, she is determining what her digestive system can handle. “They also took my gallbladder,” she said. “When you give part of your liver, you lose your gallbladder as well. So far I think I’m fine. I haven’t found any food I can’t handle yet. I’m lucky.”

Since the transplant, Knake also is doing well, though he has been fighting through some of his own complications, including a blood infection. Larsen said prayers are appreciated as he recovers. 

That the entire transplant process unfolded during the Lenten season wasn’t lost on those involved. The donor board at the Cleveland Clinic made the decision to accept Alexander as a donor on Ash Wednesday. And following the transplant surgery, Al was released from the hospital on Holy Thursday, making this Easter particularly special.

“Easter is always special anyway for my family,” Larsen said. “It’s my favorite.”

The Easter story is basically the reason Alexander made the decision to donate her liver to Knake. 

“Jesus was willing to give up his whole body for us, and I am willing to give up a little tiny bit of my liver,” Alexander said. “I’m just following Jesus’s example. I really have become much more understanding of the dignity of life, and so I feel like this is the best opportunity I’ve had to have faith and follow Jesus. I try to do that in all of my decisions.”

She admits her choice involved significant sacrifice. “Unless it was for their child or their spouse, I don’t know how someone would make this decision without Jesus in their life,” Alexander said.

But she believes her decision was the only right one. 

“It seems like nobody should have to die (needing a liver transplant). One in five die who are on the transplant list,” Alexander said. “There is a donor for everybody. I really feel like (for me) it’s just time and healing. If you give a kidney, then you are out a kidney. But if you give part of your liver, you are not out anything, because the liver regenerates.”

Alexander said she has experienced a benefit from the surgery she never expected — a special connection toward Al and the Knake family. 

Janet Alexander is pictured with her husband, Andy, and two children, Madelyn and Jacob. “Unless it was for their child or their spouse, I don’t know how someone would make this decision without Jesus in their life,” Alexander said. 

“I have this need to see him and to talk to him. I am just thrilled the transplant took, and that it was successful,” Alexander said. “I didn’t even expect that. ... I am beyond thrilled, and I think it’s going to give him his life back. It’s amazing.”

Larsen knows how much of a sacrifice the donation has been to Janet’s family — her husband Andy, and her daughter Madelyn, and son Jacob. 

“Her family had to go through this too,” Larsen said, adding she wrote a letter to the Alexander family expressing how much the gift meant. “For them to have been so loving and supportive … I pray for them every day.” 

“It was not just me getting my dad back, but my mom getting her husband of 47 years, and my dad being able to see his grandkids walk down the aisle and graduate,” Larsen said. “I can’t put into words what she has given us back.”

Through this most recent situation with her dad, she has discovered God is never outdone in generosity, citing Matthew 7:2: “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”

“Janet doesn’t want any kind of recognition,” Larsen added. “Every time we ask her how she is doing, she is like, ‘I’m fine. How is your dad?’ It absolutely blows me away, her gracefulness through all this. Her heart and soul — it’s incredible. She says the rosary every day and prays for my dad. She is an angel among us in every sense of the word.”

Larsen also has been moved to charity since her father survived pancreatic cancer, which she said only 5 percent survive. To honor her dad, she started a nonprofit in 2009 called The Hero Foundation, which helps families suffering financial difficulties because of cancer.