A week and a half after having first developed a cold, which developed into a cough, which sunk down into my chest and just wouldn't go away, I decided today to find a doctor and beg him or her for antibiotics. The secretary in the principal's office at one of the schools I'm visiting drew me a map to the Centro de Salud, which turned out to be just blocks from my apartment and across the street from a very convenient grocery store I hadn't discovered yet. He told me I should go there because I didn't have Spanish health insurance, and that it was a good idea to go soon, to try to get a "number" before the clinic shut down.

One thing I learned early in my pre-dissertation visits to Spain was that anyone -- anyone -- is elegible for healthcare. As a teacher mentioned to his class earlier in the day, "The minute you set foot upon Spanish soil, you are guaranteed medical attention." I had also heard that waits could be hours long and that the emergency rooms, especially, filled up with immigrants, and particularly Moroccans. In conversations about this that I've heard, the implication is generally that undocumented and unemployed immigrants take advantage of free health care and overrun the public clinics, diverting attention and resources from Spanish citizens, or people with their documents in order. I participated in a conversation one day when a teacher complained that, because she has insurance that makes her eligible for attention in private clinics, she was directed from an emergency room at a hospital near her house to one many kilometers away; in the meantime, the waiting room was full of Moroccans, she said.

It's true that one of the first things immigrants are encouraged to do, regardless of their legal status, is to go to "Sanidad" and get a health card. If I'd had one, I might have been able to get in to see a doctor in the main part of the Centro de Salud, but it's not likely, as it seems they stop taking patients at 2pm. The nurse at the desk sent me around the corner to the emergency room anyway, after I told him I had American, international insurance, but not European.

It was 1:30pm and extremely quiet in the waiting room. An athletic man in his mid-40s and dressed in a medic's uniform copied down my name and passport number onto the top part of a one-page form. He asked what my symptoms were and jotted them at the top of the page. Then he tore off the pink copy and gave me the white one, telling me to take a seat and my name would be called. There were only four other people waiting: a young mother with an infant son, and a mother and her grown daughter. The room was small, in an L-shape, and not much bigger than the size of my modest living room. The walls were tiled in one-inch pink ceramic tiles, which gave the area the atmosphere of a large bathroom, I thought. Stiff blue chairs lined the walls and occupied the center of the room, too.

The man at the desk came and went, the other patients were called in quickly, and I noticed that the ER personnel seemed to be getting ready to leave for comida. Just my luck, I thought, but I'm not moving from here until I see someone who can write me a prescription. Another mother and her infant son came in, the boy coughing and sneezing and borrowing his head into his mother's chest. Other patients arrived steadily after that, and as I watched them hand their green Sanidad cards to the man behind the desk, I wondered why they didn't just go to the clinic, instead, since they could. I suspect it was a matter of timing for them, as it was for me in part, too. A Spanish man cringing and coughing with fever sat slumped against the wall next to his wife; a Spanish woman came in complaining of dizziness and low blood pressure; two young Moroccan girls came in, one with a flowery tattoo on her left foot; two Moroccan men came in, one with pink eye; a Spanish woman approached the desk with what looked like painful broken blood vessels in her right eye. The man behind the desk told them that the doctor had had to accompany a patient to the hospital, and as soon as he returned, people would be called back; I heard a woman talking on her cell phone say sarcastically, "Right--they've just gone to eat, that's all."

I'd been prepared for a long wait. I am used to such stories in the States: I waited six hours just to get into the examination room, then I waited another two hours to see the doctor! So I passed the time by staring blankly at the walls or staring blankly back at the other patients staring blankly at me. At about 3pm, the ER staff had filtered back in, and my name was called -- just after the woman with the bad eye, whose case must have been severe enough to be prioritized.

I told the doctor about my symptoms and how long I'd had them. She came around the desk, also dressed in her Emergency Response uniform, and told me to open my mouth wide and say "Ahhh." "Uh-huh, laryngitis," she said. She grabbed her stethascope and listened to my lungs as I breathed in and out. "You have mucous in there," she said, "so we're going to give you antibiotics. You also need to make sure you're really well hydrated, so the mucous will move out." I nodded, grateful, and waited for her to fill out a prescription and send me to the cashier's desk to pay for my visit. I'll pay for the scrip at the pharmacy, I said to myself, giving in to the slushiness of my thoughts, to the way colds make you think in slow motion and reason carefully through insignificant details.

I nodded again as she told me that I would need to take the medicine every eight hours for several days, and then I did a double-take as she reached over to the far side of her desk and pulled a handful of Amoxicilan from a bin. She piled them on the desk before me, and I stared. No prescription? No trip to the pharmacy? I hesitated, waiting for her to tell me something about paying for the consultation (trips to the ER are notoriously expensive in the U.S.), but she was already calling in the next patient, and I had to scramble a bit to shove the antibiotic capsules into my backpack. "Is that it?" I asked her, incredulous. "Yep, that's it. I hope you feel better!" she said cheerily. I already do! I wanted to say. I felt like I'd just pulled off a heist, and she was congratulating me for it.

Spaniards are proud of their healthcare system, and friends and acquaintances often ask me why there's been such resistance to universal coverage in the U.S. It's such a basic thing, they say. I know, I agree.
It's a fundamental part of any democratic system, the teacher told his first-year class this morning. He told them that people in the U.S. have died for lack of access to medical care, and they looked alarmed. Rightfully so.