WASHINGTON (AP) -Etan Thomas was recovering from open heart surgery Friday, and the doctor who performed the operation did not rule out the possibility of the Washington Wizards center returning to play in the NBA this season.
``We think the function of his heart and lungs should return to normal,'' said Dr. Hartzell Schaff, a cardiovascular surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. ``And it's possible he could get back to playing professional-level basketball.''
Schaff said most patients recover from the operation in four to eight weeks, but the physical nature of basketball will require a longer rehabilitation for Thomas. The biggest hurdle will be the healing of Thomas' sternum, which had to be broken in order to perform the surgery.
``It's going to be more than a couple of months,'' Schaff said. ``But I don't know if we're talking about one month more or one week more.''
Thomas was diagnosed with a leaking aortic valve following a routine physical before the start of training camp last week. Schaff described the leakage as ``severe'' and said it revealed that Thomas had a bicuspid aortic valve that needed to be repaired or replaced.
``It's a condition that he's had since birth,'' Schaff said. ``But it wouldn't have been apparent until the valve starts leaking.''
Schaff replaced the valve during a 4 1/2-hour operation Thursday. The doctor said Thomas was ``awake and alert'' Friday morning and probably will remain in the hospital until Wednesday or Thursday of next week.
``His heart function is quite good,'' Schaff said.
Recently, Ronny Turiaf showed how quickly an athlete can recover from such a serious procedure. The former Gonzaga star had open-heart surgery for an enlarged aortic root in July 2005, but he joined the Los Angeles Lakers in January 2006 and played in 23 games before the end of the season.
If Thomas follows a similar timeline, he would perhaps return in time for the playoffs in April.
Thomas, 29, has played six years for the Wizards and is the team's longest-tenured player. He started a career-high 32 games last season, averaging 6.1 points and 5.8 rebounds.

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