The 37-year-old man shot by a sniper behind the Ponderosa restaurant north of Richmond on Saturday night continues to improve, doctors said yesterday, but the next two to three weeks will be critical to his survival.

He probably will require three or four more surgeries, they said.

The high-velocity bullet used by the sniper "seems to have exploded" inside the man, damaging his stomach, spleen, pancreas, a kidney and intestines, said Rao Ivatury, a surgeon at MCV Hospitals in Richmond.

"He still has a long way to go," Ivatury said. "It will be a stormy course."

A hospital spokeswoman said the patient, who is about 6 feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, was in good health before the incident, which improves his chances of recovery.

The man and his wife were traveling through Virginia on Saturday when they stopped for dinner in Ashland.

"The most difficult part was taking out part of [his] stomach because it was ripped apart and there was a lot of contamination from the food he just ate," Ivatury said.

The .223-caliber bullet the sniper is using does much more damage than slower counterparts, doctors said. MCV surgeons retrieved a large fragment of the bullet on Sunday, but other pieces remain inside the patient.

"This is a war wound. It's not a nice clean shot," said David Rein, vice chairman of surgery and a member of the trauma service at Inova Fairfax Hospital, where one of the two other survivors of the sniper was treated. "A .22 is a thin bullet. But this one comes in with a tremendous force. It literally blows things apart."

The Ashland victim's wife has been at his bedside almost continuously, and although he has a breathing tube and cannot talk, he appears to understand her and to respond by blinking, hospital sources said.

The man's wife released a statement yesterday thanking the people of the Richmond area for their help and prayers. The hospital has received hundreds of calls offering support for the couple, who has not been identified.

"This has been a frightening and difficult time where I have feared the loss of my husband, friend and soulmate," the statement said. "The hospital has taken care of all our needs so there is no need to send anything other than continued prayer."

Surgeons at MCV have removed two-thirds of the victim's stomach, his spleen, part of his intestines and half of his pancreas. Still, doctors said, if he can make it through the next few weeks, he probably will be able to lead a fairly normal life.

"You can put the colon back together, you can live without your spleen, you can live without half your stomach, you can live without part of your pancreas," Rein said. "The question is whether you can live the next couple of weeks. He is really going to be so sick."

"It will be a stormy course," said surgeon Rao Ivatury of the recovery.