Sarah E. O’Keefe, founder of a candle-making business who had Eastern equine encephalitis, dies at 27

Gina Della encourages client Sarah E. O'Keefe after she was able to vocalize a greeting at Therafit Rehab in Westminster on Feb 14, 2020.

Sarah E. O’Keefe, who was stricken with Eastern equine encephalitis when she was 8 years old, which left her unable to speak and quadriplegic, but was able to establish a candle-making business, died of complications from pneumonia Aug. 23 at Carroll Hospital Center. The Westminster resident was 27.

“Sarah’s story is sad and tragic, but also inspiring,” said her uncle, Terry O’Keefe, of Canton. “Sarah was a normal kid who loved school and to play and ride her bike.”


“There were a number of times I thought we were going to lose her,” said Kathy Poindexter, who was Ms. O’Keefe’s nurse for the past 15 years. “But she stayed around to teach people lessons about the value of life. She wanted them to learn from her. Her death is so hard for me. It’s like losing a child.”

Sarah Elizabeth O’Keefe was born in Baltimore and spent her early years in Reisterstown. When she was 8 years old, she was stricken with Eastern equine encephalitis.


“She had been a normal healthy child,” said her mother, Connie Bell O’Keefe. “It had been a warm spring that year and she had been bitten by a mosquito. She came down with, Eastern equine encephalitis, which is very rare, and there were many cases that year.”

After many months in the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center, Ms. O’Keefe had managed to survive, but as a result of the disease, had lost the ability to speak and was left quadriplegic.

“She had talked as a child and had a beautiful voice,” her mother said. “But Sarah had never learned to write because she had no movement below her neck.”

“It’s amazing how many lives she touched even though she hadn’t spoken in 19 years,” her father said.

Sarah E. O'Keefe, 26, of Westminster with Kathy Poindexter, her nurse, got into candle-making at Change Inc. just before the coronavirus pandemic and grew it into her own business, Sarah’s Sassy Scents.

While unable to express herself, Ms. O’Keefe communicated through facial gestures and was fully cognitive.

“I learned to read her mind and expressions. She’d answer ‘yes’ by blinking her eyes or pressing her lips together. You just had to take the time to figure her out,” Ms. Poindexter said.

“She’d purse her lips for ‘no,’” her father said. “Everyone got used to it.”

“She had such a big personality and wanted the world to treat her as a whole person and not as someone in a wheelchair. She was interactive, craved attention and loved to laugh,” Ms. Poindexter said. “She had a sarcastic twisted sense of humor and we would laugh so much. And she could be stubborn. I remember when she played Monopoly, if she didn’t want to buy or sell a property, she didn’t.”


Ms. Poindexter, who recently moved to Ocean City from Westminster, said she treated Sarah as if she were one of her own children.

“My three children grew up with Sarah and my daughter became a nurse because of her,” she said. “I remember one time they tied a rope from their bicycles to her wheelchair and took her down the street for a ride. Of course, I was right there, and Sarah just loved it.”

“We had been living in a 1920s house in Reisterstown, and after Sarah got encephalitis, we moved to a one-floor ranch house in Westminster,” said Ms. O’Keefe’s father.

Her parents, and sister, Katherine Bell O’Keefe, were determined to make Ms. O’Keefe’s life as reasonably normal as possible by becoming her advocate. With Ms. Poindexter by her side all the time, she was able to complete her junior high education and graduate from Westminster High School.

“She was in the special needs class and had some pretty remarkable teachers,” Ms. Poindexter said. “She had an instructional assistant who helped her with her schoolwork.”

Sarah E. O'Keefe, founder of Sarah’s Sassy Scents, produced many candles in pink and purple, her favorite colors.

Ms. O’Keefe was a member of her high school’s bowling team, and even though she was non-ambulatory, she was able to bowl with the aid of a ramp that rolled the ball from her hand to the floor.


She also attended local programs for developmentally challenged children and adults, and because her parents were concerned for her social well-being, they enrolled her in special camps such as Penn-Mar Human Services of Carroll County, which provides services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“For seven or eight years, she attended PA Vent Camp during the summer in Millville, Pennsylvania, which was her Christmas, and parents couldn’t stay,” her father said. “She’d do things like zip-lining, swimming, rock climbing, painting, and on the final night, they had a graduation dance, which was always themed. One year, it was Marvel Comics.”

Several years ago, Ms. O’Keefe established a candle-making business called Sarah’s Sassy Scents with assistance from Ms. Poindexter and Penn-Mar’s partnership with Change Inc. The two women chose “jars, pillars and votives with different shaped containers, scents and colors,” reported a 2021 Carroll County Times article.

“We called the business Sarah’s Sassy Scents because Sarah was very sassy,” Ms. Poindexter said.

Sarah E. O'Keefe, center, then a sophomore at Westminster High School, gets help from her nurse Kathy Poindexter, left, and one-on-one assistant Denise Allenbaugh, right, while bowling at Greenmount Bowling Center in Hampstead.

“Through trial and error, they began creating the candles by manually pouring the wax into individual containers. O’Keefe and Poindexter make about 10 candles per week and O’Keefe has expressed an interest in creating ‘mandles,’ a men’s candles line,” the newspaper reported. The candles were sold to family and friends.

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Because Ms. O’Keefe’s favorite colors were pink and purple, many candles were made with those tones.


Her father said being a small-business owner gave Ms. O’Keefe a great sense of accomplishment.

“She likes to be large and in charge,” Ms. Poindexter told the Carroll County Times in 2020. “She likes to be the boss and oversee the fragrances and shapes. It’s her quality time and she likes to listen to music most of the time.”

“We drive and deliver the candles, and Sarah loved it,” her father said in a telephone interview. “She just loved being around people.”

“Sarah was very caring and loving,” her mother said.

Plans for a celebration-of-life-gathering are incomplete.

In addition to her parents and uncle, Ms. O’Keefe is survived by her sister, Katherine Bell O’Keefe of Littlestown, Pennsylvania, and many cousins.