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Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

The Toothman Family
The Toothman Family

Second-year law student Misty Toothman always knew she wanted to go to law school, but she took a less traditional path to get here than other law students.

The oldest of six children, Toothman grew up on a dairy farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Her father was a farmer and her mother a teacher and church pianist. As a child, Toothman watched Matlock and other legal television series like Perry Mason and Columbo with her mom, sparking her initial interest in becoming a lawyer.

During her freshman year of college at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Toothman met her future husband Drew. After their first year together at Liberty, her husband left college to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. Toothman, determined to join her husband on base in California, accelerated her course load and graduated in three years in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism

Toothman was dedicated to supporting her husband’s military career and raising their three children. During their first 10 years of marriage, the young family moved eight different times. In 2009, Drew, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician, was given only a few days’ notice before deploying to Afghanistan.  

While serving in Afghanistan, her husband was subjected to hundreds of explosions and was injured during an operation to investigate the use of a possible improvised explosive device. Despite his injury, he was deployed again in 2011, this time on a Marine Expeditionary Unit at sea.

After his two deployments, Toothman’s husband was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He also had both feet surgically reconstructed and underwent several other surgeries. He medically retired from the military in 2014 and Toothman quickly became his fulltime caregiver, helping him recover from his physical and emotional injuries from war, in addition to raising their children.

Misty and Drew Toothman
Misty and Drew Toothman

Looking for a fresh start, in 2015 the Toothmans bought a 1724 farmhouse on eight-and-a-half acres in Berks County, Pennsylvania, which they rehabbed over the course of the next few years. Settled into their new home and with their children in school, Toothman, who had worked from home for years in various positions so she could be accessible to her husband, decided it was time to pursue her law degree.

“I had put my dream to go to law school on hold for years because of my husband’s military career,” She said. “When I decided to revisit pursuing my childhood legal aspiration, I realized my identity had become military wife, then mother, then caregiver for my injured husband. I needed to prove to myself that I could follow my dreams. I also wanted to model for my children that working hard to achieve your goals, while challenging, is not only possible but also a valuable experience. Now that my husband is in a better place and has taken on the role of stay-at-home-dad, I’m able to focus on pursuing my law degree.”

As a full-time law student, mother and wife to a military veteran, Toothman now juggles her studies with life at home. She schedules her classes so she can put her kids on the bus, and she tries to make time for a cup of coffee with her husband every morning.

“I am very organized,” she said, “and I have to be okay with feeling like I’m doing everything but getting nothing done. Growing up on a farm instilled in me a strong work ethic, the ability to operate under stress, and a capacity to find creative solutions.”

In her family, Toothman is the first of her generation to seek a graduate degree (she already holds a master’s degree in American History from American Military University), and the only one other than her mother to complete a bachelor’s degree. “When I walk into my law classes I still feel a little anxious because I don’t have as much time to prepare as other students, but I think I bring a different perspective and life experience to the classroom,” said Toothman.

“I have also felt supported and encouraged by the staff, professors and my fellow classmates. I’ve had more than one professor give me a well-timed, much-needed pep talk, share a personal anecdote, or offer advice. There have been times when I had to miss class and had multiple classmates contact me and offer to share notes,” she added.

In the 10 years since his injury, Toothman’s husband has undergone numerous therapeutic treatments, while she has become an active member of the military caregiver community, seeking support from other caregivers and serving as a facilitator for caregiver support groups.

In October 2019, Toothman participated in the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s Fourth Annual National Convening “Hidden Heroes Among Us: Inspiring Community Action in the Caregiver Journey” in Washington D.C. She was selected as the Pennsylvania Fellow to represent caregivers of the wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans in Pennsylvania and across the country at the week-long conference where she discussed the progress on the initiatives benefiting military and veteran caregivers.

“It was encouraging to have a chance to connect with caregivers from around the country,” said Toothman. “We all have so much in common and are working towards the same goal of taking care of our loved ones.”

She met with Members of Congress and national leaders on Capitol Hill about the challenges faced by military caregivers, including the need for increased access to respite care, flexible work options, and essential services and support offered through government agencies like the Department of Veterans Affairs. Toothman provided feedback and firsthand experience in discussions focused on potential caregiver policy changes and plans for generating greater caregiver support at the local level.

Back at Villanova Law, Toothman works to find a balance. She is interested in tax law and might pursue it after graduation, recently also enrolling in the Graduate Tax program. “Nothing in life has worked out according to my plan,” she said, “So, for now, I am focusing on where I am, making networking connections and having faith that wherever I’m supposed to end up is where I’ll be.”

Toothman is the 2L representative for the Villanova Law Parent and Nontraditional Student Group, a network of students who are not the typical fulltime law students. “This year, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know other mothers, and we have been able to encourage each other, share resources and express our anxieties, frustrations and struggles,” she said.

She added, “I’m only able to make law school happen because of the amazing support of Drew, our children, and my network of supportive family and friends. I hope that by witnessing the realities of my journey my children will be inspired not only to persevere through whatever difficulties they may encounter but also to pursue their dreams.”