Epiphora: The rains, the floods and the tears

Friday, 26 August 2011 was a red-letter day in Ibadan when a devastating flood swept through the city. I was far away in a Catholic hospital in Iseyin, a rural settlement, in the northern part of Oyo State when it all began.

At about 8.00pm, while in the operating theatre, with my eyes glued to the microscope, I noticed the floor was wet and in a jiffy, the entire room was flooded. “Matron,” I yelled, “someone has left the tap running! Please do something quickly about it before we get drowned.” Everyone burst out laughing and chorused, “It’s raining heavily outside.”

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I took my eyes off the microscope and surveyed the surrounds. Yes, indeed it was raining heavily. I heard for the first time the strong musical clatter of raindrops on the window panes. I plodded on with the surgeries taking care not to get my feet wet. By 12 midnight when we finished, there was no sign that the rain was going to give us any respite.

Tired, I managed to get to my room and slumped into my bed. The combination of the cool weather following the rain and fatigue provided perfect sedation for a good sleep. I woke up about 7.00 in the morning, refreshed. I had my bath and got ready for the post-operative ward round. The patients were all fine and after a late breakfast we set out for Ibadan through Eruwa,

The serene atmosphere and orderliness in Iseyin did not prepare us for what we were about to witness in Ibadan.  As we got to the fringes of the town, some unusual sights caught our attention. There were collapsed perimeter fences here and there and debris from gutters which had spilt onto the roads. As we drove down the slope to the bridge spanning the river before the densely populated area, the traffic came to a standstill.

There were crowds of people, many with tears streaming uncontrollably down their faces. From the distance, I could guess the cause of their distress. It was a frightening sight! All the houses previously standing proudly along our side of the river had disappeared. I got out of our vehicle to get a better picture.

“Doctor, there were six houses out there on the plain that you are looking at. They were all swept away with the occupants,” said a man from amongst the crowd of teary-eyed sympathisers, who had recognised me. On the other side of the river, some of the houses had parts torn off and cars were thrown here and there in awkward positions.

Why should floods occur in Ibadan, a city naturally endowed with beautiful hills and valleys which provide natural drainages? The city town planners and local government officials are in a better position to provide the answers. As I looked at the sad faces, many dripping tears, I could identify the basic features of a good drainage system. The upper and lower lids sloped gently, almost imperceptibly towards the nose where they meet. Inside each lid margin, a few millimetres before the union is a hole which collects tears into a tiny pipe.

The upper and lower pipes unite to form a bigger pipe which drains into a pouch or receptacle called lacrimal sac. From the lower part of sac another bigger pipe arises which channels the excess tears into the nose.

“Floods” naturally occur when more tears attempt to flow through the drainage channel that nature has constructed for its exit. This happens when there is irritation of the eye or when we cry. There should ordinarily be no flooding outside these two conditions.

Unfortunately, there is! Epiphora, like the great Ibadan floods of August 26, 2011 and earlier ones, in particular, that of 1980. When things go wrong, a distortion of the lid margin will throw the drainage hole out of alignment and make it impossible for it to collect tears.

Similarly too, an obstruction at any part of the drainage channel or the orifice within the nose would cause an overflow of tears.

The lesson is clear. You can’t stop water from flowing! If you do not make provisions for its free flow, it will create a path for itself and may bring tears to our eyes.

Bad planning or failure to plan; poor living habits and lack of maintenance of the drainage channels are the common causes.

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