MASON CITY — Dr. Dan Waters came to Mason City in 1990 not knowing how long he would stay.
Twenty years later, Waters, 55, a cardiac and thoracic surgeon with Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa, reflects on his career, his life and the changes he has seen in medicine.
“The Heart Center had opened (1989). They had a new program here,” he said of the day he received the call from Mercy. “We thought it was a good opportunity.”
He and his wife, Pam, liked the community, Waters said. “People here were nice.”
A native of Riverside, N.J., a town of 8,000, Waters was “no stranger to a small town,” he said.
Today, with an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 surgeries under his belt, Waters has seen improvements in surgical procedures, including the ability to make smaller incisions, that have enabled patients to recover faster and go home sooner than in the past.
On the other hand, the average surgical patient he sees is older and has more medical problems, too.
“We’re seeing tougher cases with more risk, more complications,” he said.
A good number of his patients are over the age of 75, people who are still healthy and independent, Waters said. Twenty years ago, they may not have been candidates for surgery.
“I’ve done about a half dozen people 90 or older,” he said. “All but one are still alive or lived 10 years or more.”
In older patients the goal of surgery isn’t necessarily to prolong life but to maintain their independence and quality of life, he said.
His exposure to state-of-the-art medical practices during his fellowship training at the Cleveland Clinic, a world-renowned academic medical center, enabled Waters to introduce new medical procedures to Mercy-North Iowa.
An example was his ability to repair — as an alternative to replacing — mitral valves in the heart.
“Today we’re able to repair 80 percent of the mitral valves we see,” Waters said.
Mitch Morrison, director of the Mercy Heart Center, said North Iowa is fortunate to have a physician with Waters’ level of training and ex-perience.
“To have that caliber of physician at a smaller tertiary care center is truly a blessing,” he said. “He has excellent outcomes compared to anybody in the country. He has made a huge difference in many lives and many families over the years.”
Waters truly cares about his patients, Morrison said. “He is extremely gifted. He has a surgical team that is excellent as well.”
“We try to emulate the level of excellence of larger institutions,” Waters said. “You always look for some way to make it a better experience for the patient.”
He is perhaps most widely known for his intervention in the case of Ward Krenz, a former North Iowa resident who had technically drowned in Clear Lake after plunging through the ice on his snowmobile in the winter of 1993.
Waters’ exposure to the heart-lung machine through his experience at the Cleveland Clinic enabled him to resuscitate Krenz, who had been clinically dead for two hours.
The episode has been featured in four documentaries, on The Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel and ABC’s “20-20” news magazine.
“I never thought any of these things would happen when I came here,” Waters said with a shake of his head.
There have been a number of dramatic surgical outcomes in his career, surgeries when someone who had nearly died was saved and returned to a meaningful life “through a combination of skill and luck,” Waters said.
He said, though, that nothing is given.
“Heart surgeons as a group are usually people who are not easily intimidated,” Waters said. “It’s one specialty where you can never take anything for granted.”