Lis Densmore pictured rowing on the Tatshenshini several decades back. (Courtesy of Nicole Dhillon)

Longtime Whitehorse doctor Lis Densmore dead at 69

Family members and former patients remember her as compassionate and loving adventure

Family and friends are mourning the sudden death of a retired, long-serving Whitehorse doctor who they say loved the outdoors and genuinely cared about her patients.

Dr. Lis Densmore, 69, was found dead near the scene of a single-vehicle accident on Cowley Lake Road Jan. 6, according to a press release by the Yukon Coroner’s Service. The vehicle appears to have been driven over a steep embankment, the press release said, and Densmore “appeared to have been attempting to find her way back up the embankment when she succumbed.”

An autopsy is scheduled to take place in Vancouver later this week.

Born in Denmark in 1948, Densmore moved to Canada with her family in 1965, originally residing in Revelstoke, B.C., before ultimately settling in Edmonton. She attended the University of Alberta, where she obtained her degree in medicine, and married Peter Densmore in 1970 before they moved to Whitehorse in 1975.

The couple had two daughters together and Densmore would call the Yukon home for the rest of her life, practicing medicine in Whitehorse from the year she arrived until her retirement in 2013.

“Lis contributed a lot here,” Peter said in a phone interview Jan. 9. “At one point, she could probably rightfully say she delivered half the kids who were here in Whitehorse.”

Although he and Densmore separated in the early 1980s, Peter added, they remained “great friends.” In fact, after he remarried and had two more children, Peter said Densmore served as the children’s doctor until she retired.

“(She had) a big heart, big, big heart,” he said. “Very generous, smart, as smart a person as you could meet, actually, just a terrific doctor, very direct and very smart.”

Densmore’s younger daughter, Jenelle Gray, said the number of people who have reached out to share stories about her mother since the news of her death shows the huge impact she had on the Whitehorse community.

“One of the things I thought was most amazing about my mom was that she was a ‘grand-doctor,’ as I used to call her — some of the babies she delivered went on and stayed as her patients and they went on to have kids and she delivered their babies, so I just thought that was the coolest thing,” Gray told the News, adding that although her mother could be stern, she was compassionate above all.

“She shared their joy and she shared their sorrow. She went to birthday parties for the kids and she went to the weddings and funerals…. It was so amazing to see the dedication she had and the connection she had with so many people.”

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley called Densmore’s death a “tragedy.”

“It’s very sad to lose a colleague, and especially one that’s been part of the Yukon medical community for so many years,” he said. Although he didn’t work with her directly, Hanley said he “always found her very collegial, very gracious and certainly knew her patients very well, had a good relationship with her patients and very loyal patients.”

Among Densmore’s long-time patients is Carolyn Klassen, who was delivered by Densmore and remained a patient until age 21, when she moved away for university. Now 34, Klassen remembered her former doctor as “very straight-forward and genuinely caring.”

“She was the first person I met because she pulled me out of my mother, essentially,” Klassen said on the phone from Squamish, B.C. “She probed in a way that made you feel very comfortable talking to her — she was the first person I ever talked to about sex even though I wasn’t having any.”

Densmore also had a great sense of humour, Klassen said, recalling a time when Densmore diagnosed her with common cold and, instead of prescribing any medicine, recommended her father buy her a pass for Mount Sima instead.

“She had a twinkle in her eye…. She just didn’t really stop,” she said.

Besides medicine and her patients, though, Densmore had another great passion — the outdoors.

“She was an adventurer,” Gray said. “I used to tease her relentlessly that she wasn’t the typical mom — she never made me a batch of cookies once in her life, but she mountaineered.”

Her mother’s accomplishments, Gray said, include being the first woman to climb Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica, getting her pilot’s licence to fly small planes, rafting the Tatshenshini River and serving as the base camp physician at both Mount Everest and the Annapurna Massif in Nepal.

“We never once had a typical family vacation with her,” Gray said. “We would go skiing, we would go rafting, she always had us adventuring and she led a very adventurous life.”

Densmore is survived by her mother, Gudrun Jensen, daughters Gray and Nicole Dhillon and five grandchildren. A public memorial service is tentatively scheduled for next week, and the family is also collecting stories and photos of Densmore for a memory book.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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